Some people think that law firms aren't interesting targets for computer criminals. They don't typically have terabytes of credit cards and bank accounts on file. But they do retain powerful clients, from wealthy individuals to big companies, and they often have privileged information about those clients, including details of business dealings and inside information about their negotiating positions and future plans.
Of course, law firms have always had an ethical responsibility to protect the confidentiality of their clients. This was a bit easier to do when everything was on paper; the only risk was if the attorney left a sensitive memo in a bar or if the firm didn't have tight physical security to prevent a thief from gaining entry to the office — think Watergate. Clearly, things have changed, but like many other sectors, the adoption of new technology by law firms has outpaced the adoption of the security best practices needed to live with that technology safely.
There are now several prominent examples of how things can go wrong. Earlier this year, global law firm DLA Piper was hit by a strain of ransomware that forced management to shut down its offices for several days while IT dealt with the problem. In 2016, a breach referred to as the Panama Papers entailed a massive document disclosure of 2.6 terabytes of data from Panamanian-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung got hold of the documents, resulting in coverage of celebrities' and politicians' financial transactions and other personal details.
If events like these have a silver lining, it is the possibility that other firms might learn from them in hopes of avoiding the same fate. Here are four best practices law firms should consider as they seek to make information security a higher priority:
1. Prioritize information security in the right way. Unfortunately, when firms get serious about information security, they often do so by designating a person responsible for preventing breaches from occurring. While having a professional CISO is an important step that many firms ought to take, they should do so with a broader understanding of what that person is responsible for.
Breaches are going to occur. The CISO is not just responsible for reducing the risk that they'll happen, but also leading the organization to adopt practices that will limit their impact and setting the organization up to respond properly and recover quickly when they do happen. And incidentally, CISO's are most effective when the rest of the organization understands the importance of good security practices and is open to improving those practices rather than resisting them.
2. Reduce the firm's information footprint. Through our day-to-day use of digital technology we tend to amass piles of valuable data, without even thinking about it. What will computer criminals be able to get access to if they compromise the computer or email account of a typical member of your firm? There may be a lot of old data, documents, and emails sitting on the laptops of your attorneys or on file servers that just don't need to be there. Can you automatically archive old data to offline storage, where it isn't readily available on the network?
3. Involve your employees as a part of the solution. When it comes to reducing the firm's information footprint, a bit of personal awareness on the part of individual employees can go a long way. Tagging an email as "attorney client privileged" won't stop computer criminals from reading it. They should constantly ask themselves, "Is this conversation with a client an appropriate conversation to have via email, where it might be permanently stored or exposed, or should I pick up the phone?"
Employees are also your front lines for detecting things such as phishing attacks. Some people aren't very responsive to training, but others will learn, and report suspicious things they see. Often, sophisticated attacks will target multiple employees. The ones who are good at identifying them may be your first warning.
4. Build an organization that is resilient. Again, breaches are going to happen. The sensible approach is to put together a thorough incident response and recovery strategy. The advent of ransomware makes an especially powerful case for this: if your firm has been backing up all its files and systems daily or even continually, there's no need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to the criminals hijacking your firm's files.
Maintaining a highly secure and safe operation should be top of mind for partners and directors at law firms of all sizes. This is not a routine IT administration task but a smart business strategy that can keep your firm thriving and in good stead with clients for many years to come.
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