There is a light at the end of the tunnel on my neighbour’s commute.  My neighbour is a barrister.

Most mornings I see a neighbour of mine walking to the train station, hauling behind him a huge suitcase on wheels. It’s the kind of case a family of four would take on a two week holiday and, from the way he heaves it up on to the train, I can tell it’s extremely heavy.

I can’t help wondering what it is that he’s transporting this way so regularly, and what strange practices are taking place in my sleepy suburban neighbourhood. Despite my intrigue though, the answer is somewhat prosaic – the case is full of paper. My neighbour is a barrister.

As I take the train in the opposite direction, heading towards my job in a high-tech software company, and carrying little more than an iPad, I wonder what would compel anyone to drag around that amount of paper in this day and age. Indeed, I can download several times that volume of content to my iPad in a matter of seconds!

The explanation, it transpires, is around issues of confidentiality, the risks of electronic sharing, fear and uncertainty over data theft, and a need to ensure security and privacy.

Word-processing software and the use of standardised terms mean it’s now easier than ever to create large documents consisting of hundreds of pages. Where five years ago a five megabyte file was considered to be large, it’s now the norm.

It’s true that the vast amount of sensitive information, materials and data contained in the documents within this suitcase could cause critical damage if it were to find its way into the public domain or the hands of an unauthorised individual.

And, aside from the harm this could do to a barrister’s reputation, there are also data protection obligations imposed by regulatory bodies such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and by legislation including the Data Protection Act.

What’s more, with recent revelations such as the British government conceding that it had breached human rights laws by spying on confidential, protected communications between lawyers and their clients, the issue of how sensitive information is handled has never been more pertinent.

Following technological advances

So why have other areas of the economy found it easier to follow technological advances to improve the efficiency and security of the way they handle information, and allow them to carry a little less paper around with them?

In the City, for example, virtual data rooms facilitate the transfer and sharing of highly confidential and top secret market moving data every day, meaning the physical, paper-driven “data rooms” used for negotiating high finance deals in the 90s are now largely obsolete.

In my own job I am now able to share an electronic document, allow a third party to download and use it for a period of time, and then decide to remotely shred it if I wish, rendering it and any copies entirely useless.

If I wanted to, I could insist that anyone I allow to download the document can only get a copy which has their name stamped across every page, along with the address of their computer and the time it was downloaded.

Alternatively, I could allow someone to only view the document online, and never download it.

I could give them the ability to hide all but a small window of text at any one time, making it practically impossible for anyone to read the document over their shoulder.

I can even ensure that all of my documents are stored with such a strong level of encryption that it would take the most powerful computers on the planet many lifetimes to break. And, by giving the customer control over that encryption, the documents could be irrevocably erased from the service provider at any point.

Using these examples alone, it’s not hard for me to make a strong case as to why such technologies may represent a far greater level of protection over information than a suitcase full of paper.

Technology for security and efficiency

Barristers will, of course, often use email to transfer important documents, although it’s not an especially practical means of sharing large files and, once they’re sent, there’s no way of knowing where those files go next or who they’re seen by.

Consumer products such as Dropbox or WeTransfer are also options for quickly and easily sharing large documents but using these products can be risky, presenting a number of potential issues around security, privacy and compliance.

There are steps that barristers and their chambers can take to address these issues, however, by using solutions designed especially for businesses to securely transfer documents with clients, partners and third parties.

Technologies such as Information Rights Management, for example, can make it easier for barristers to protect and control sensitive information once it has been shared, and manage who has access to a document in ways similar to those I described earlier.

And, in addition to any security concerns, these technologies can also address issues of practicality.

Barristers will frequently need to access relevant information they hold on a particular client or case which, if it is held on a sheet of paper amongst thousands of others inside a suitcase, is clearly not an easy task. While it might be considerably more easily achieved when accessing a chambers’ IT network, it is now widely expected that this information should be available and accessible around the clock, regardless of location.

The legal industry is extremely competitive, with barristers constantly looking for a point of difference. In a climate where clients will scrutinise their legal expenditure in minute detail, any efficiency a barrister can gain by being able to securely access documents on their smartphone or tablet, wherever they are, at any time, can only help towards improving their client relationships, their productivity – and their profitability.

Overcoming resistance

Despite the obvious benefits to security and efficiency that they offer, however, there still exists an element of resistance to using these technologies due to concerns over data privacy and cyber security. Fears over the security of using the cloud to share files and documents, for example, are entirely rational, but they should be addressed by taking a pragmatic and sensible approach to any risk they may present.

There’s no denying that cyber breaches and data leaks, deliberate or accidental, are increasingly common and high on the list of concerns for barristers and their clients. But these won’t be prevented by chambers keeping their IT infrastructure in-house which, in many cases, may not even be feasible.

Indeed, a significant factor that may be holding barristers back in the adoption of such technologies is the freelance nature of the profession, and the lack of a joined up IT procurement and deployment capability in the chambers model.

While free electronic file sharing services such as Dropbox or WeTransfer may lack the security credentials a barrister needs for assurance, their more robust and capable business focused counterparts will require purchasing and ongoing administration. However, many technology providers have addressed regulatory concerns, and the level of entry for a secure Software as a Service, or SaaS file sharing solution, can be relatively low compared to software installed in a chambers’ premises.

Cultural shift

We live in a digital age where the form and nature of legal documents have changed irrevocably, both in terms of size and volume.  The climate is one where barristers are expected to have constant, immediate access to their clients’ information while offering assurance that this information is safe and secure at all times.

Electronic file sharing technology exists which offer the capabilities needed for assured security, greater control and improved efficiency.

But every time I see my neighbour lugging his documents to work with him, it’s clear to me that a cultural shift is required to encourage barristers to more fully appreciate the implications of information security in 2015.

Perhaps providing a secure electronic information sharing platform for associated barristers could become part of a standard service along with the office space and clerk services currently provided by chambers.

By making their clients aware of the security risks posed by consumer file sharing services such as Dropbox – and even email – barristers will be able to sell the confidence and assurance offered by secure technologies instead. In doing so, they will improve the security and efficiency of their information handling, and build tighter and more successful relationships that will benefit their bottom line and distinguish them against competitors.

If nothing else, my neighbour will finally be spared his daily commute accompanied by a suitcase full of paper. ?

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