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In between writing memos and running off to summer associate events, you may by tempted to log onto your firm’s computer network and surf the Web. However, summer associates, beware! Using workplace technology improperly may have serious consequences for the firm and your career. The electronic law firm today has a variety of technology resources, including networked computers, laptops and even Palm Pilots. All of these different resources retrieve, store and transmit large quantities of sensitive information over the company-owned network. Because of the increased dependency on technology, law firms are more sensitive than ever to outside threats by hackers or computer-related viruses that may cripple business operations. Firms are also concerned with maintaining their networks’ integrity to steer clear of a hostile work environment. Thus, there is a heightened awareness of the need to educate employees and put them on notice of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate activity when using technology resources. Joseph I. Rosenbaum, attorney and head of the e-commerce department at the New York offices of Greenberg Traurig, advises companies on developing internal computer policies necessary to ensure legal compliance. In an interview with the New York Law Journal, he offered advice to summer associates and emphasized that “summer associates need to look at the firm’s computer system as a resource and an asset of the firm — just like other company resources, such as the telephone.” Only use the computer for business purposes, or incidental business-related personal purposes,” stressed Rosenbaum. “There is nothing wrong with using e-mail, if that is the way you normally correspond with your husband or wife to say, ‘Honey, I will be late.’” Rosenbaum warned, however, that problems arise when individuals misuse or abuse a firm’s technology resources, such as when someone sends large quantities of personal e-mails, downloads offensive material from the Internet using the firm’s computers or uses the firm’s network to send inappropriate materials that may be construed as racially and sexually offensive within the workplace. In an effort to protect one of a firm’s most valuable assets — the computer network — many firms have adopted several legal and technical measures that all employees, especially new associates, need to be aware of. ON THE TECHNICAL SIDE Password Control. Be attentive to your firm’s computer password protection controls. Passwords are given to authorized users only. When you use your password to access online resources, be aware that your online movements may be tracked. Rosenbaum cautions that since many associates share computer resources, they should always remember to log off whenever they leave their workstation. “Don’t leave your password or log-in open. First, it could result in a breach of confidentiality. Second, someone could use your workstation to conduct inappropriate or even illegal activity, all of which will be attributed to your password, and by implication, you,” said Rosenbaum. Firewalls and Tracking Devices. In addition to passwords, firms also use firewalls to prevent unauthorized users from gaining access to certain areas, such as payroll or client files. Tracking devices and firewalls are also used to screen or flag inappropriate language and halt certain file attachments from being downloaded. File attachments are often removed at a firm’s gateway and screened for viruses. The files may have to be accessed through the network administrator upon completion of this process. Laptops. If you use a firm-owned laptop, all of these policies are applicable as well. With a laptop, you may be tempted to install another type of operating software to bypass the firm’s network. However, it is important to note that unless you have administrative privileges, many times you will be locked out from doing this. E-Mail Record Retention Policy. Finally, be aware that firms do not usually monitor e-mail in real time for a variety of both legal and practical reasons. They do, however, maintain archival records enabling them to track your computer use and store e-mail correspondence, even after you delete them locally. It is important to note that these records may be stored for a number of years and could possibly be used as evidence if a conflict arises in the future. “Much of the policy behind these technical measures goes to information security,” said Rosenbaum. “Law firms deal with both confidential and privileged information in handling matters for clients. Thus the concern is not limited to only abuses of the firm’s assets and resources.” Rosenbaum points out that since most information is stored electronically or put on disk, and most firm computers are networked and connected to the Internet, large quantities of information may be transmitted electronically with ease. This poses greater security risks to law firms today. “It takes away the need to use a truck or even a briefcase to move large amounts of documents and information — a diskette in your pocket is all that is necessary today. Everyone, including associates, needs to be sensitive to this,” Rosenbaum said. THE LEGAL END Private employers may monitor certain online activities and communications. While private employers may monitor company-owned electronic communications systems and record and archive the communications themselves, intrusions into an employee’s privacy, even in the workplace, must be nondiscriminatory and take into account some reasonable expectation of privacy. Thus, if a company asset or resource is being used, if the subject matter of the communications is one in which the employer has a “legal and legitimate interest,” and if the employer has notified employees of monitoring or inspection policies, the law will be more likely to uphold an employer’s right to record and inspect employee communications. Employees’ reasonable expectations of privacy are usually balanced “against the employer’s need to supervise, control and ensure efficient operations in the workplace.” Rosenbaum pointed out that after an employee has notice, the “monitoring of information as a routine without any basis of believing that there is some performance-related or compliance-related activity, could be construed as improper monitoring, especially if it is targeted or implemented in a discriminatory manner.” “Most firms do not improperly monitor computer use; however, there is opportunity for abuse,” he noted. Nevertheless, in terms of inappropriate firm monitoring, attorneys are bound by certain canons of ethics. “There are certain principles of trust that relate to the attorney-client relationship and to the lawyer’s relationship with the firm,” said Rosenbaum. Most employees have a reasonable amount of privacy that every firm respects. For example, most employers understand that employees call spouses or send e-mails to family members, and do not consider that as an abuse. If used properly, Rosenbaum said, computers benefit productivity and efficiency and, like the telephone, have some incidental personal uses. “That being said, the potential for abuse and improper use is also present.” READ THE COMPUTER POLICY! In an effort to put employees on notice, many firms require you, the employee, to sign a computer policy agreeing to the firm’s rules and procedures. By signing such a document, a firm obtains your prior express consent to monitor your online activities. Although policies vary from firm to firm, a computer policy generally covers the proper use of all technical resources, as well as covering policies relating to security, passwords, confidential client information, e-mail and file attachments, monitoring the use of the firm’s system, and archival record activities. A company may also obtain your consent when using the network. Employees often receive online notices or sign-on messages warning them that there is “no guarantee of privacy” when using the particular network. Each time this message pops up, the user must accept the terms and conditions of this policy in order to use or continue using the system. HOW TO AVOID LAND MINES? In addition to the above, read your firm’s policy closely to fully familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations you are agreeing to. If you do not fully understand what the policy entails, ask the appropriate person in charge to fully explain it you. If your firm doesn’t have a policy, suggest they create and adopt one. Uncertainty is not a loophole, but a trap for the unwary in the employment relationship. Remember, unlike your academic institution where the use of computer resources is largely unregulated, the use of the computer within the workplace is highly regulated. Further, it is important to keep in mind that the online actions you take today may come back and haunt you tomorrow. It is, therefore, critical to think carefully before you act. Susan L. Harper is a law student at New York Law School and an intern with the New York Law Journal.

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