This isn’t about fair trade or organic coffee. Rather, what are the ethics of the lawyer working in a coffee shop?
Whether you like meeting clients somewhere casual or just want to get out of the office, hopefully you’ve thought through these issues. While this kind of practice is becoming more commonplace — even desired by clients — it’s also weighted against a long-time stigma that lawyers who don’t work in offices are “practicing out of their trunks” and are somehow less legitimate. No matter what you think, it’s hard to deny working in a coffee shop will become more commonplace as technology allows us to work remotely more easily.
Caffeine make you jittery? The same issues apply to public libraries, restaurants, or even talking on your phone in “public” (anywhere someone can hear you: a bathroom, the dentist’s waiting room, the bus, or the train).
If you’re bucking the traditional law office, here’s some food (to go with your coffee) for thought.
The spark for this blog post comes from a recent California ethics opinion about confidentiality and technology. Here’s what they said about public wi-fi:
[D]ue to the lack of security features provided in most public wireless access locations, Attorney risks violating his duties of confidentiality and competence in using the wireless connection at the coffee shop to work on Client’s matter unless he takes appropriate precautions, such as using a combination of file encryption, encryption of wireless transmissions and a personal firewall.
There are many easy things you can do to safeguard your information (see here or here). If you don’t have these protections, the simple solution is to either disconnect (sometimes that’s more productive anyway), or focus on non-sensitive work on a netbook or laptop without client files. Be equally careful with paper files, and make sure your client’s name and bank account numbers aren’t laid out for the guy next to you to read.
How does a coffee shop client meeting impact you client’s confidentiality? Remember the client is in charge of the representation. They can keep things confidential or not. They can tell whomever they want about everything. But you must keep it confidential unless they give you permission not to. That’s Rule 1.6 (while you’re there, read comments 15 and 16).
If a client prefers convenience, weighted against the relative sensitivity of the information, it might be fine to meet them somewhere public. Personally, I feel that’s always my client’s choice and not mine — I usually offer my office and say we can meet elsewhere if they are comfortable not meeting in private. With simple estate planning most people don’t really care if the guy in the next booth hears about their kids. But use good judgment if you’re meeting about something like a sensitive business deal, even if the client seems okay with it. You never know who is sitting across the room, and your client might not think through the implications.
That’s the colloquial term for people who talk — often on a cell phone — so loudly that you hear their entire conversation. Usually completely oblivious to the fact that, even if one-sided, you can fill in the blanks. Aside from being incredibly rude, often awkward and uncomfortable, this also raises confidentiality concerns. Now I’m not suggesting that opposing counsel would ride your bus in hopes of overhearing your conversation, but I’m continually surprised at how small our legal community really is, who knows who, and what they might overhear by accident. Aside from having a personal agenda to reduce the number of loud talkers, I don’t think you should treat the phone any differently than you would an actual in-person conversation when it comes to sensitive information.