One Simple Step in Outlook to Protect Your Trade Secrets

If you and your employees use Outlook, you can take one simple step now to dramatically reduce the risk of inadvertent sharing of confidential information: Disable email-address auto fill.

Everyone loves this feature. You type the first few letters of someone’s name, and Outlook fills in an email address. But the increased efficiency comes at a cost, as everyone occasionally sends an email to the wrong person whose name is similar to the intended recipient.

If that email contains confidential info, you’ve just compromised it. Hopefully, you sent it to someone friendly who will comply with your embarrassed request to delete the email. Even if there’s no confidential information, the recipients may question your ability to exercise discretion when necessary. (Also, imagine later trying to prosecute a trade-secrets action and having to produce in discovery an email sending the info at issue to some random guy.)

So I strongly recommend that you disable this feature. And have your IT department disable it for all employees. The relatively minor loss of efficiency is outweighed by the reduced risk of unwanted disclosure. And there’s an added benefit: not having to send sheepish apology emails to the mistaken recipients (and sometimes to the other intended recipients who now have an interloper privy to the discussion).

Here’s how you disable this feature:

File –> Options –> Mail –> Send Messages –> Deselect the radio button for “Use Auto-Complete List to suggest names when typing in the To, CC, and Bcc lines”

ABA Ethics Opinion: Trade-Secrets Lawyers Need to Encrypt Emails

By definition, lawyers working on trade-secrets issues, whether in litigation or otherwise, have access to their clients’ most confidential information. And, of course, these lawyers routinely communicate with clients via email, including about the trade secrets. Sometimes, even the trade secrets themselves are exchanged via email.

This raises ethical issues. Recently, the ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued a formal opinion addressing lawyers’ ethical obligations when transmitting confidential client information. The opinion can be downloaded here.

All lawyers who deal with trade-secrets issues should read the opinion. But here are some highlights:

The opinion recognizes that law firms are hacking targets because:

(1) they obtain, store and use highly sensitive information about their clients while at times utilizing safeguards to shield that information that may be inferior to those deployed by the client, and (2) the information in their possession is more likely to be of interest to a hacker and likely less voluminous than that held by the client.

It then discusses applicable ethical rules, concluding that “lawyers must exercise reasonable efforts when using technology in communicating about client matters.” So what are reasonable efforts?

What constitutes reasonable efforts is not susceptible to a hard and fast rule, but rather is contingent upon a set of factors. In turn, those factors depend on the multitude of possible types of information being communicated (ranging along a spectrum from highly sensitive information to insignificant), the methods of  electronic communications employed, and the types of available security measures for each method.

The opinion specifically mentions lawyers who deal with trade secrets, since those matters “may present a higher risk of data theft.” The fact-based analysis is often relatively simple in trade secrets cases: if you are transmitting your client’s trade secrets or related information, you may need to use “particularly strong protective measures”:

A fact-based analysis means that particularly strong protective measures, like encryption, are warranted in some circumstances. Model Rule 1.4 may require a lawyer to discuss security safeguards with clients. Under certain circumstances, the lawyer may need to obtain informed consent from the client regarding whether to the use enhanced security measures, the costs involved, and the impact of those costs on the expense of the representation where nonstandard and not easily available or affordable security methods may be required or requested by the client. Reasonable efforts, as it pertains to certain highly sensitive information, might require avoiding the use of electronic methods or any technology to communicate with the client altogether, just as it warranted avoiding the use of the telephone, fax and mail in Formal Opinion 99-413.

There is a simple takeaway for all trade-secrets lawyers: think very carefully about how you are transmitting confidential client info. This requires an open dialogue with the client. You need to figure out how you will be protecting this data while in transit (and at rest, but that’s a separate issue). At my firm, we have the capacity to encrypt individual emails on-demand, which can allow for secure transmission of sensitive data.

But this sensitive data isn’t only shared with clients. Often, it will need to be produced in litigation. Lawyers spend a lot of time negotiating protective/confidentiality orders with attorney’s eyes only (AEO) protections. But don’t forget to securely transmit AEO documents to the other side. For example, my firm uses a secure/encrypted document sharing platform.

Trade-secrets cases often move fast. But this ABA opinion shows that regardless of how intense the litigation becomes, lawyers must be cognizant of their obligations to protect clients’ confidential information.

Damages for Misappropriation of Trade Secrets Found Non-Dischargeable In Bankruptcy

Guest post by Solomon B. Genet

As Eric’s law partner, from time to time I “guest post” on trade secret issues in the insolvency / bankruptcy context.  One important issue involves the dischargeability of pre-bankruptcy misappropriation claims. The March 31, 2017 In re Mandel decision out of the Eastern District of Texas addresses this issue.  There, claimants filed proofs of claim in Mandel’s bankruptcy case alleging that the debtor violated the Texas Civil Theft Liability Act (“TCTLA”) by misappropriating trade secrets. The debtor objected to these claims. On September 30, 2011, the bankruptcy court tried the matter and found that the debtor violated the TCTLA and awarded the claimants damages and attorney’s fees. Years later, the issue before the bankruptcy court was whether these claims (arising from conduct prior to the bankruptcy filing) could be discharged in the bankruptcy case.

The claimants asserted that the damages for violation of the TCTLA were non-dischargeable on a variety of bases, and the bankruptcy court ruled in favor of the claimants on some theories and against the claimant on others.  To narrow the issues for purposes of this post, the bankruptcy court determined that its previous decision finding (as a matter of fact and law) that the debtor misappropriated trade secrets was sufficient to also prove that the debtor committed: (1) fraud; (2) larceny (fraudulent and wrongful taking of the property of another with intent to convert such property to the taker’s use without the consent of the owner); and (3) embezzlement (fraudulent appropriation of property by a person to whom such property has been entrusted, or into whose hands it has lawfully come).  Each of these bases gave rise to the misappropriation of trade secret claims being non-dischargeable.  Therefore, the bankruptcy court did not require re-litigation of the issues and found in favor of the claimants.

Practice Pointer:    When litigating a claim for misappropriation of trade secrets, make sure your strategy includes collection of the debt arising from that claim.  If there is a possibility that the wrongdoer may file for bankruptcy, consider the elements of a claim for non-dischargeablity when presenting and proving your case.

The case is In re Mandel, No. 12-4128, 2017 WL 1207503 (E.D. Tx. March 31, 2017).

 

 

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