Attorney James D. Friedman vividly remembers walking into his office to find a stack of pink message slips on his desk from clients who called during the lunch hour.
“I started practicing in the days of when you were out of the office, nobody had a way of getting a hold of you,” said the veteran Quarles & Brady corporate lawyer.
There was little lasting use for those memos, and if an attorney left the firm, he or she didn’t walk out with a pocketful of Post-Its.
But today, Friedman and others rely on firm-issued or supported technology to stay in touch with clients.
In Friedman’s case, he recently upgraded his firm-issued laptop and also takes advantage of its $50 monthly data plan allowance for his own BlackBerry.
But with such a heavy reliance on mobile technology, how much information attorneys can take with them if they leave is something firms have to balance. While most firms will allow for negotiation when it comes to taking hard copies of client files or contacts, they have stricter policies for technology.
Rick R. Thompson, Director of Information Technology at Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, said there isn’t much a firm can do if someone really wants to copy client files off their computer, but having attorneys turn their laptops and smart phones in and deleting the data is the best defense.
“They are wiped clean and taken back to factory settings,” Thompson said. “So attorneys walk out with nothing.”
The Milwaukee-based firm distributes mobile devices to the majority of its 200 attorneys and splits the price of the hardware, but covers the cost of data and voice plans during their tenure.
Thompson said IT professionals work with departing attorneys to recover personal information or photos, but guard against taking firm-related data.
“Anything to do with the firm has to stay,” he said. “Personal stuff is typically the limit of what they can take.”
Like Reinhart, the policy for many firms allows for very little leeway.
“They are tools for lawyers, but also firm assets,” said Randall D. Crocker, President and CEO of von Briesen & Roper. “Just like a corporate car, when you leave the firm you turn in your keys.”
The Milwaukee-based firm issues a smart phone and laptop to every lawyer. If a lawyer decides to switch firms, he or she must return the technology, which is an easy way to keep track of client confidentiality, Crocker said.
In addition, lawyers are typically restricted from transferring client contacts.
“Client contacts belong to the firm and we don’t give client lists out when people leave, unless the client requests that it be forwarded,” Crocker said.
Quarles & Brady does not provide attorneys with smart phones, but pays for part of the cost of monthly service. Lawyers at Quarles are allowed to retain client contacts on their personally owned smart phones, provided the client signs a release. However, attorneys are required to return firm-issued laptops, which are wiped clean of e-mail and other documents.
“We try to be as accommodating as we can, while at the same time protecting the firm’s intellectual property,” said Michael S. Weissman, the firm’s Legal Practice Technology Director.
Smaller firms, such as Boyle Fredrickson, are more judicious with dissemination of technology.
Shareholders at the 23-attorney firm are armed with iPhones and some have laptops, while associates have more cost-effective BlackBerrys and none have laptops.
“One reason is financial and it’s also a perk for shareholders,” said firm president Peter C. Stomma. “For associates, we want to make sure they are billing enough hours and doing their jobs.”
The firm pays for voice and data plans for all attorneys, but associates are required to turn in their devices upon departure, whereas should a shareholder leave, he or she would have the option of buying their iPhone.
Client contact information is expected to remain with the firm, but Stomma and other firm administrators admitted that it’s virtually impossible to prevent attorneys from exporting that information.
“Technically, those should stay with the firm, but a smart associate is taking them anyway,” he said. “You have to be practical about it.”
It is also difficult to discern between personal and professional contacts.
In the age of digital networking, Godfrey & Kahn IT Director Thomas R. Dressel said attorneys tend to store non-client business contacts they have nurtured during their careers.
“The reality is they could easily be copied off anyway and there is no real way of policing that,” he said. “But as far as the physical device goes, we’re taking them off there.”
Departing attorneys at Godfrey & Kahn have two weeks to decide if they want to export personal contacts from their BlackBerry to another device before it is reset.
After an attorney leaves the firm, Dressel said he occasionally gets a call from one asking what happened to all their contacts.
“I tell them ‘we kind of let you know what was going to happen,'” he said.
Jack Zemlicka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.