Keeping client information confidential is a basic tenet of doing business. Still, cyber breaches aren’t the only ones that cause problems for law firms. All it takes is an old-fashioned “loose lips” situation to have the potential to damage to your firm’s reputation and disrupt your business. Here are a few examples, followed by steps that you can take to protect the confidentiality of your clients’ information.

How many of us have unintentionally viewed another person’s PowerPoint presentation while sitting in a coffee shop or an airplane gate area, or seated on a plane? The presentation might be a highly confidential report with graphics and bullet points that detail sales figures, projected stock prices, office openings or closings — even employee reviews. We didn’t ask to see these, nor did we want to look at them. But when you’re squeezed into the middle seat of a 727, it’s nearly impossible not to see what’s on the laptop of your seatmate, especially when the screen is super- bright and zoomed in at 200%.

Then there’s the story of “Acela Bob.” For those not familiar, here is the Cliff Notes version: A few years ago, a law firm was planning a large layoff to occur sometime in the next quarter. Bob, a law firm partner and head of a practice group, happened to be riding the Acela train and was engaged in a rather loud cellphone conversation about the upcoming event. Bob wasn’t sitting in the Acela’s Quiet Car, and it just so happened that a reporter from a well-known online legal-related website happened to be sitting — you guessed it — in the row directly behind Bob, and overheard the entire conversation. The story breaks the next day, and, as they say, “the rest is history.” Talk about your avoidable PR crisis!

You might think that was a hard lesson learned by everyone in the legal community, yet a few weeks after that story broke, a colleague was riding the elevator back to her law firm office along with a group of businesspeople. On the way up, they began talking about the pitch meeting from which they were apparently returning. When the elevator stopped on their floor (that of the only other law firm in her building), she held the doors open long enough to remind the attorneys, “You know, the walls have ears,” while pointing to the lighted logo of her firm, just a few floors above theirs.

Here are some tips for keeping client confidential information truly confidential:

  • Never mention last names or company names aloud in public places.
  • Never discuss business dealings on elevators or other means of transportation.
  • Invest in a good privacy screen for your laptop and use it every time you’re working at an airport gate, on an airplane or train, and especially at Starbucks or another café.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings when using your cellphone. If you must conduct business on your cell, speak as quietly as possible.

Jaffe has written extensively about steps a law firm can take to prevent — or, if necessary, how to handle a cyber attack, should one occur at your firm:

Need help preparing your firm for the variety of types of breaches? Contact Vivian Hood at