Use of file-sharing sites by solicitors

Technology 07/11/2014

The almost universal use of virtual or electronic documents in legal transactions has seen a consequent surge in the demand for facilities to easily share these documents through online file-sharing facilities. Online sharing of documents allows for a centralised depository, concurrent editing rights, and easy access to the most recent drafts or copies.

In the context of legal transactions, online file-sharing requires measures that provide for the security, integrity and confidentiality of the documents. Users of online file-sharing facilities must ensure that there are adequate controls on access to enable the practitioner to comply with his/her legal, professional and ethical obligations. They should have clear editing and version protocols. Online file-sharing facilities should have satisfactory back-up and archiving arrangements to enable a solicitor to comply with all Law Society requirements in respect of client files and documents.

Some file-sharing sites are more secure than others. The solicitor’s primary objective in using file-sharing sites should be to maintain the security and integrity of their clients’ documents. While appreciating the benefits of online file-sharing facilities, the Technology Committee would advise as follows.

Public file-sharing sites

The Technology Committee does not recommend the use of free services provided to the public by file-sharing sites such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Fileserve or similar for the sharing or distribution of client information. If clients insist on the use of such sites, they should be made aware that such free services generally do not provide sufficient contractual assurances to enable practitioners to discharge their obligations to clients and that they are not recommended by the Law Society’s Technology Committee.

A number of such file-sharing sites also offer paid versions for use by businesses. These versions may offer better contractual conditions, but they should be used with caution and only after solid evaluation and a robust examination of their capabilities prior to professional use. The evaluation should be similar to that recommended below for virtual dealing-room sites, and the client should be made aware, through a letter of engagement or standard conditions of engagement or otherwise, that use of such a site is proposed.

Private secure ‘virtual dealing room’ sites

Solicitors should seek details from their IT providers in relation to any virtual dealing-room sites prior to use. These details should specify the facilities and measures in place with regard to security and access, backup and archiving. They should inform a solicitor as to the adequacy of such measures with regard to duties owed to a client, and ensure compliance with Law Society requirements. Solicitors intending to use such facilities should inform their clients, and also advise clients of any identified risks, preferably in writing, and should seek the client’s consent or authorisation as appropriate to use of such facilities.