FLORIDA BAR ETHICS OPINION
September 24, 2010
Advisory ethics opinions are not binding.
A lawyer who chooses to use Devices that contain Storage Media such as printers,
copiers, scanners, and facsimile machines must take reasonable steps to ensure that client
confidentiality is maintained and that the Device is sanitized before disposition,
including: (1) identification of the potential threat to confidentiality along with the
development and implementation of policies to address the potential threat to
confidentiality; (2) inventory of the Devices that contain Hard Drives or other Storage
Media; (3) supervision of nonlawyers to obtain adequate assurances that confidentiality
will be maintained; and (4) responsibility for sanitization of the Device by requiring
meaningful assurances from the vendor at the intake of the Device and confirmation or
certification of the sanitization at the disposition of the Device.
4-1.1, 4-1.6(a), 4-5.3(b)
The Professional Ethics Committee has been asked by the Florida Bar Board of
Governors to write an opinion addressing the ethical obligations of lawyers regarding
information stored on hard drives. An increasing number of devices such as computers,
printers, copiers, scanners, cellular phones, personal digital assistants (“PDA’s”), flash
drives, memory sticks, facsimile machines and other electronic or digital devices
(collectively, “Devices”) now contain hard drives or other data storage media1
(collectively “Hard Drives” or “Storage Media”) that can store information.2 Because
many lawyers use these Devices to assist in the practice of law and in doing so
intentionally and unintentionally store their clients’ information on these Devices, it is
important for lawyers to recognize that the ability of the Devices to store information
may present potential ethical problems for lawyers.
For example, when a lawyer copies a document using a photocopier that contains
a hard drive, the document is converted into a file that is stored on the copier’s hard
1 As used in this opinion, Storage Media is any media that stores digital representations of documents.
2 See Brian Smithson, The IEEE 2600 Series: An Introduction to New Security Standards for Hardcopy
Devices, ISSA JOURNAL, Nov. 2009, at 28; Holly Herman, Experts Warn Copiers Can Be Fertile Ground
for ID Thieves, READING EAGLE (Jun. 2, 2010, 12:28:54 P.M.),
http://readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=222523; Mark Huffman, Digital Copiers Could Be an Identity
Theft Threat, ConsumerAffairs.com (May 19, 2010),
http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2010/05/digital_copiers.html; Armen Keteyian, Digital
Photocopiers Loaded with Secrets, CBSNews.com (April 15, 2010),
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/04/19/eveningnews/main6412439.shtml; Gregg Kelzer,
Photocopiers: The Newest ID Theft Threat, COMPUTERWORLD (March 14, 2007),
drive. This document usually remains on the hard drive until it is overwritten or deleted.
The lawyer may choose to later sell the photocopier or return it to a leasing company.
Disposal of the device without first removing the information can result in the inadvertent
disclosure of confidential information.
Duty of Confidentiality
Lawyers have an ethical obligation to protect information relating to the
representation of a client. Rule 4-1.6(a) of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar addresses
the duty of confidentiality and states:
(a) Consent Required to Reveal Information. A lawyer shall not
reveal information relating to representation of a client except as stated in
subdivisions (b), (c), and (d), unless the client gives informed consent.
The comment to the rule further states:
The confidentiality rule applies not merely to matters
communicated in confidence by the client but also to all information
relating to the representation, whatever its source. A lawyer may not
disclose such information except as authorized or required by the Rules of
Professional Conduct or by law.
A lawyer must ensure confidentiality by taking reasonable steps to protect all
confidential information under the lawyer’s control. Those reasonable steps include
identifying areas where confidential information could be potentially exposed. Rule 4-1.1
addresses a lawyer’s duty of competence:
Competence A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a
client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill,
thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.
The comment to the rule further elaborates:
To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep
abreast of changes in the law and its practice, engage in continuing study
and education, and comply with all continuing legal education
requirements to which the lawyer is subject.
If a lawyer chooses to use these Devices that contain Storage Media, the lawyer
has a duty to keep abreast of changes in technology to the extent that the lawyer can
identify potential threats to maintaining confidentiality. The lawyer must learn such
details as whether the Device has the ability to store confidential information, whether the
information can be accessed by unauthorized parties, and who can potentially have access
to the information. The lawyer must also be aware of different environments in which
confidential information is exposed such as public copy centers, hotel business centers,
and home offices. The lawyer should obtain enough information to know when to seek
protection and what Devices must be sanitized, or cleared of all confidential information,
before disposal or other disposition. Therefore, the duty of competence extends from the
receipt, i.e., when the lawyer obtains control of the Device, through the Device’s life
cycle, and until disposition of the Device, including after it leaves the control of the
lawyer. Further, while legal matters are beyond the scope of an ethics opinion, a lawyer
should be aware that depending on the nature of the information, misuse of these Devices
could result in inadvertent violation of state and federal statutes governing the disclosure
of sensitive personal information such as medical records, social security numbers,
criminal arrest records, etc.
Duty to Supervise
The lawyer must regulate not only the lawyer’s own conduct but must take
reasonable steps to ensure that all nonlawyers over whom the lawyer has supervisory
responsibility adhere to the duty of confidentiality as well. Rule 4-5.3(b) states:
(b) Supervisory Responsibility. With respect to a nonlawyer
employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer or an authorized
business entity as defined elsewhere in these Rules Regulating The Florida
(1) a partner, and a lawyer who individually or together with other
lawyers possesses comparable managerial authority in a law firm, shall
make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures
giving reasonable assurance that the person’s conduct is compatible with
the professional obligations of the lawyer;
(2) a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the
nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s
conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer; and
(3) a lawyer shall be responsible for conduct of such a person that
would be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if engaged in by
a lawyer if:
(A) the lawyer orders or, with the knowledge of the specific
conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or
(B) the lawyer is a partner or has comparable managerial
authority in the law firm in which the person is employed, or has direct
supervisory authority over the person, and knows of the conduct at a time
when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take
reasonable remedial action.
A lawyer’s supervisory responsibility extends not only to the lawyer’s own
employees but over entities outside the lawyer’s firm with whom the lawyer contracts to
assist in the care and maintenance of the Devices in the lawyer’s control. If a nonlawyer
will have access to confidential information, the lawyer must obtain adequate assurances
from the nonlawyer that confidentiality of the information will be maintained.
A lawyer has a duty to obtain adequate assurances that the Device has been
stripped of all confidential information before disposition of the Device. If a vendor or
other service provider is involved in the sanitization of the Device, such as at the
termination of a lease agreement or upon sale of the Device, it is not sufficient to merely
obtain an agreement that the vendor will sanitize the Device upon sale or turn back of the
Device. The lawyer has an affirmative obligation to ascertain that the sanitization has
been accomplished, whether by some type of meaningful confirmation, by having the
sanitization occur at the lawyer’s office, or by other similar means.
Further, a lawyer should use care when using Devices in public places such as at
copy centers, hotel business centers, and outside offices where the lawyer and those
under the lawyer’s supervision have little or no control. In such situations, the lawyer
should inquire and determine whether use of such Devices would preserve confidentiality
under these rules.
In conclusion, when a lawyer chooses to use Devices that contain Storage Media,
the lawyer must take reasonable steps to ensure that client confidentiality is maintained
and that the Device is sanitized before disposition. These reasonable steps include: (1)
identification of the potential threat to confidentiality along with the development and
implementation of policies to address the potential threat to confidentiality; (2) inventory
of the Devices that contain Hard Drives or other Storage Media; (3) supervision of
nonlawyers to obtain adequate assurances that confidentiality will be maintained; and (4)
responsibility for sanitization of the Device by requiring meaningful assurances from the
vendor at the intake of the Device and confirmation or certification of the sanitization at
the disposition of the Device.