While we may not be in a fully paperless world yet, there is a definite trend toward digital documents.
The legal field has fully embraced this trend, with digital documents now routinely employed for court filings, discovery, and many other facets of the industry. This means that legal professionals need to know how to keep their digital documents secure.
To maintain the security of your law firm’s digital documents, you should first understand why they are a permanent part of the modern legal world.
Then, you should be aware of the security risks they pose.
Finally, follow the best practices for digital document security to ensure your firm can ride the ongoing trend toward a world with less paper.
Why digital documents are here to stay
No matter how much some legal professionals want to turn back the clock, digital documents are here to stay.
Not only do digital documents provide many advantages over paper, they are also increasingly accepted by courts and the overall legal industry. There are plenty of reasons that the legal profession increasingly prefers to be paperless.
Efficient access and remote work
Digital documents provide quick and easy access compared to paper records.
Retrieving digital documents is fast and efficient. Multiple users can access digital documents from different locations and different devices, such as laptops and phones.
This allows for collaboration between remote teams — perfect for the many firms that have switched to hybrid or remote work during the pandemic.
When digital documents are in PDF format, they are also searchable with text recognition.
The ability to search for names, dates, or keywords is a critical feature for busy legal professionals. In fact, it is usually a requirement for eFiling.
Secure document management
It might not seem intuitive, but digital documents provide improved security compared to paper documents.
They can be password-protected so that access is only allowed for authorized users. A document management system can also provide the firm with information as to who accessed the document and when.
Widespread use by courts and the legal industry
Courts and the wider legal industry have adopted digital documents, making them a permanent part of the legal landscape.
Many courts allow electronic filing (eFiling), with some — such as U.S. federal courts — even requiring eFiling instead of paper filing.
Many firms prefer the advantages of eFiling, which include faster filing, instant access, and easier tracking.
Then there is the widespread use of electronic discovery (eDiscovery), which completely relies on digital documents and has spawned a proliferation of eDiscovery platforms and tools.
Security risks you should know about
While digital documents offer higher security than paper documents, they still pose some security risks.
One of the foremost risks is the threat of a data breach, where law firm data is exposed or stolen.
Another risk is the compromise of the firm’s web server, which can result in the server crashing or otherwise becoming inoperable.
These risks can arise from a variety of sources, including disgruntled employees, hackers, and equipment failure.
For both data breaches and server compromises, law firms often face a related threat — lack of contingency plans. Firms need contingency plans in place to maintain backup data, restore lost data, and achieve business continuity.
This means firms must have electronic records policies in place. In fact, effective policies for electronic record-keeping could reduce a firm’s legal malpractice rates.
Sadly, many practices are still lacking in this area.
Best practices for keeping your digital documents secure
Since digital documents are here to stay but still pose security risks, legal professionals must know how to maintain their security. The following are some best practices.
Cloud storage of digital documents is a key strategy for maintaining security.
Cloud-based documents can be protected with access control, password protection, and other security measures.
In addition, the cloud vendor will maintain duplicate files for your documents, ensuring backups are always available. If you choose your vendor wisely, they will have robust security in place that will provide far more protection than your firm could on its own.
Responsible firms must employ access control for their digital documents. This means giving individual users only the level of access they need.
Password protection and other encryption practices are some of the best ways to control document access.
Learn the access controls that are already built-in from your document management system and use them.
Legal professionals should secure access to digital documents with password protection, in addition to potential other forms of authentication.
It is good practice to extend these protections to entire folders (instead of just individual documents) so that documents with similar security requirements can be grouped together.
Redacting PDFs correctly
When your PDF documents contain personal information or other sensitive data, PDF redaction can safeguard against exposure.
Redaction is generally used before dissemination of the document to the public, the courts, or opposing counsel, depending on the circumstances.
PDF tools such as Adobe Acrobat Pro have features that allow for simple and easy redaction. Make sure that you use the right tools for the job — incorrectly redacting a PDF can expose sensitive information to the public.
Firm-wide security policies
Your firm needs document security policies in place to ensure every firm member knows how to handle digital documents.
These policies should cover the creation, storage, and sending of digital documents, as well as specify consequences for security violations.
This will likely require education of firm members about data security — which is a worthy goal on its own. The need for this kind of education is only going to increase over time, and it’s better to address it before you suffer a data breach.
Use these best practices for digital document security to ensure your firm enjoys all the benefits of an electronic world, while protecting against the downside of cybersecurity threats.