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Introducing the Ethical Wall – Free Training Fridays


Ethical walls protect clients from a conflict of interest by automatically preventing attorneys from participating in any matters for which they have a conflict. Ethical Walls can also help you find and retain good talent in a dynamic job market.

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Video Transcription

Good morning or good afternoon wherever you are. My name is Allyson, and I am the Content Manager here at AbacusNext. Today, we're discussing the ethical wall. Before we begin, here's a couple of housekeeping notes. Please ask questions the throughout the webinar and they will be answered in the order they were received. It's going to be about a 45-minute presentation with a 15-minute Q&A at the end.

Today's host is Tomas Suros, AbacusNext's Chief Solutions Architect. Thank you again for joining us, and I'll let him take it away.

The ethical wall can be found in both AbacusLaw and in Amicus Attorney. The ethical wall is really the concept of protecting information, being able to wall it off from individual who must not have access to it or so they control who does have access to it.

The purpose of this slide onscreen now is that this concept has also been called Chinese wall in a poetic nod to the Ming Dynasty's great wall in China. It's that concept of a protective barrier that really makes sure that access to information is yours. You basically have the ability to control access or to restrict access. Okay.

What we'll cover today is really the need, what is the need for an ethical wall? Next enabling, how in Amicus Attorney and in AbacusLaw you can initialize that wall, that protection, protective barrier. Next, and then finally, we'll touch on risks mitigation and internal protocol because really what the ethical wall requires is both technology that helps you monitor and control who has access to information within your systems as well as the training and documented protocols that are required on the human side of things to make sure that protections and the need for access or the need to prevent access is known throughout the firm. Then, we'll follow up with a Q&A and I'll answer any questions that come up during the session.

What is the ethical wall? The concept of the ethical wall is a screening barricade that must be established within a business, it can be a law firm in this context, to protect clients by restraining access to information in order to prevent conflicts of interest between associates. A conflict of interest could be the sharing of information that is negative or that could hurt the client or the opposite, it's the sharing of information from a client, one client, that would be used incorrectly for the advantage of another client. It's a double-edged word there between how and why you made need to protect information within an organization.

Then, looking backwards a bit in time, from a historic perspective, an ethical wall within a firm was done physically where literally cabinets were locked or one person was in charge of cases of a specific type that were then segregated and maintained and even in separate locations, physical locations and, of course, via policies. The idea of policies remains intact where it's very important within a firm. Technology can prevent anyone from literally pulling out the case file that they shouldn't have access to it but making sure that there are notifications and everyone knows exactly how information is stored and how it's accessed in the flip-side, who shouldn't have access to specific information.

What we'll go over in the upcoming minutes is how software can really facilitate the protection, the ethical protection that is required in a number of different ways. There's the flexibility in these software tools in your case management system of whatever type, whether it's Amicus Attorney or AbacusLaw, but that software, that technology helps you, one, by user-by-user, you can and grant or restrict access on a case-by-case basis, but also there are tools where at an organizational level whether by role, or department, or practice area, you're able to establish overall rules that give you that higher level of protection knowing that a case of that type whenever it's created, resembled or entered into the system will inherit the controls that have been designedor have been implemented from an organizational standpoint. The flip-side of that, going to be able to go in and say, "This case is only accessible by Thomas." Or by Allyson, or Marcus, and no one else.

Another thing that's important about this is, and it was touched in the introduction to this session, is if a firm is growing and it is considering hiring and bringing on new staff, one of the concerns is that staff or that member, that new associate or new partner brings with him or her their history. They've represented clients that the firm in any other context did not have contact with.

The ethical wall really is a benefit to firms because leveraging this technology means not allow new cases that come to the firm as a referral or however they might find you in the normal course of business, that's something that during a conflicts check and initial conversation with them, they can be walled-off or their information could be walled-off or other information could be walled-off from them in one context. But also as the firm inherits the book of business and case history and clients that a new associate might bring with them, the ethical wall is really advantageous in that way as well. Or an entirely new manner of protecting the firm and making sure that for compliance reasons and based on the code of ethics, that a firm is implementing the controls it needs to protect clients and associates whether they're brand-new, the business, or whether an associate is bringing a significant new amount of business to the firm, being able to leverage technologies to help the firm stay on top of the controls that are required.

Okay. How does the ethical wall technology really function? Both in Amicus Attorney and in AbacusLaw there is dysfunction where using tools in the system, you can run a conflict of interest check. In essence, it's a type of search where at a granular level, scouring through all the information that's managed and assembled and controlled and organized within your case management system, you perform that check based on keywords whether it's an entity, whether it's a contact name, whatever the information you may need to enter in this system to initiate the search, you can perform it very quickly and generate a report results. You can review those, and if there is a direct conflict right away you know that's may not be something that we can continue with and you won't spend any more time thinking about it or spending any time working on it.

Now, a conflict of interest check can also bring up to tangential or ancillary potential conflicts. In that situation, you can reach out to the client and get their informed consent and/or you can also create an ethical wall. Really, forming that conflict of interest is essential, it's necessary, and it's a core feature. It's a function that's available both in Amicus Attorney and AbacusLaw.

Once that's been done, and if there is a conflict or a potential conflict identified, that's when in the program you are able to identify the files, the client file, or the matter, and say, "This matter may only be accessed by this individual or this handful of individuals, or this work group." You have that level of control over the access rights on a case-by-case basis.

So, whether it's organizational, and here's an example of how that might be implemented, if you have a litigation group or a bankruptcy group, let's say in a bankruptcy, you collect a lot of financial information about the individual, their assets or a business, and different shareholders and whatnot, that information is necessary for you to move that case forward. But your bankruptcy group, which could be two people, it could be 17 people, whatever the need may be, that group could have a permission setting assigned to each of them where they can only access the bankruptcy cases, where your case management system has bankruptcy cases and litigation cases, estate planning and so on. But using a case management program to organize all the information for all the other cases is of exceptional value, but the real goal, and what we're talking about today is the ability to go in and say, "This group of individuals only have access to these specific cases" whatever criteria you might select, for instance, just bankruptcy cases.

The good thing is a user of one type logs in using their secure password and credentials, and when they click a list of all cases, they see just what they have access to. Versus a group or an individual in another group who logs in and truly sees an entirely different list of cases. But someone at the firm who does have administrative access and wouldn't actually be working on those cases regularly would be able to go in and do a comprehensive conflict of interest check that would look at both types of cases. Within the organization, you have that level of control, where individually you can grant access to a case file and the information that's captured within it.

By information, I truly mean all of the notes, all of the documents, all of the calendar activities whether it's an appointment, a hearing, a task, a to-do, documents and emails, all the information, the different types of records that make up that file in your case management system. That is what I mean by the information that would then be granted or restricted within that ethical wall. It truly is a wall where with using the technology you are controlling the display of information. It's not like you see something but it's grayed-out, it's not like you kind of have access but only to certain parts of it. It truly is your ability to say, "This user cannot see any information that we've assembled in our managing for a specific case."

The the last point here that's essential and it's one of the things that must be reiterated and something that we need to focus on is the administrative management. Somebody needs those administrative rights to go and create the permission, meaning granting or restricting access to those specific files but also internally within the organization, something where, and this is what we do when we work with a lot of our clients who are leveraging technology and really benefiting from a lot of the controls that are built into it, there's also the human element. There's this education, there's this notification, and there are ways where not only will the software help you, when you log in you're not going to accidentally stumble on the information you shouldn't have access to but within the organization. Even walking down the hall, having a conversation, passing somebody's desk, those are the kind of things where that comes down to a training where individuals need to be aware of a file and its restrictions because going forward it's up to them as well to maintain an ethical wall outside of the technology.

There's a stopping point where there are so many things you can do that are certainly helpful on a case-by-case or a file-by-file basis within the technology, but also it comes down to the firm having that kind of procedures, and education, and enforcement and notification, let's say, that other cases of a certain type or a client of a certain name, there are considerations that must be preserved and protected.

Okay. An example of use cases, a client that comes in and the firm, let's say, it's litigation, it's a business dispute, a contract dispute, it's resolved successfully, the client is happy. Then, let's say, years down the road, an associate of that client or a former business partner comes in and wants to retain the firm to represent him to create a revocable living trust. In order to take that business, understanding that the nature of the work is very different, a conflict check would release the connection between the two and it would take an analysis of, "Okay, so we can identify or we can create or perform this work for this client, however, understanding that there was an association between a former client and this client in the past, understanding an attorney who had worked on that previous dispute would be potentially restricted." The ethical wall would be created around this new client work from an attorney who represented a connected client in the past.

That's an example of a use case. That's why or how an ethical wall could help you still accept that new business, understanding that it's not a direct conflict, it is a different type of work, but there's enough of a connection where an ethical wall would need to be created.

In creating a trust for somebody, you're looking at their financial information, their assets, maybe ownership interest in entities and whatnot, and really making sure that there isn't even the appearance of a conflict essential for firms to protect themselves. Of course, the ethical wall is exactly what you want to create in that type of scenario.

Okay. Now I want to move into more how you actually do it because there's an ease-of-use to it, which you belies the importance, I think, of making sure that it's done and performed correctly.

On screen now we're looking at a client file in Amicus Attorney, Burwood versus Write, and it has all the advantage, the nice and organized information that's part of the Amicus Attorney system. You'll notice on the case file itself there is a restrict control, so by clicking restrict, that is how you can identify a case file in the Amicus Attorney system and apply restriction. Those restrictions are what create an ethical wall within the Amicus Attorney program.

If I click on restrict, restrict there, I get this restrictions dialogue. This is where I can control whether this file is visible only to assigned firm members, so the firm members that I assign myself or others to the case file itself, this is how I can restrict access only to those individuals. Also, there's an additional restriction, which is nice, which edits can be performed by type and task. You can also control read-only versus modification. That's anaddition. But the idea of a restriction is just that, it's creating or it's establishing the controls of who has access to the file and what they can do when they access to it or when they gain access to it, but the restriction is just that.

That is how in the Amicus Attorney program you can pull up a file or you can pull up a contact and grant or restrict access to any person with any file simply by granting it, you simply would not apply a restriction. That makes sense, it's implying it by the negative, but that restriction tool is a straightforward way on a case-by-case basis to establish restrictions, apply them to that case. When I click okay, going forward restrict will now be read, so I have a nice little reference that this file is restricted. Clearly, if I'm in the list of firm members who have access to it, but that is a nice visual reference directly on the file. When I'm creating it or establishing a restriction, I know exactly how to do it using a straightforward process, and when I pull up a file that has access restrictions I know immediately that it is restricted from other members. That's a nice way in the Amicus Attorney interface that there is control over which files and, of course, the information.

It's important to recognize that when I restrict the file in Amicus Attorney, the contacts, the information that is associated with it, the summary, the notes, the events, the communications, documents, emails and whatnot, all of those are protected by the system. It becomes a nice way for you to do a couple of things: one, it's a necessity of the ethical wall concept and, two, it gives you that peace of mind. You know exactly that this file is restricted and that the software will control access within the Amicus Attorney program to information pertinent to this case file.

Okay. Building on that concept, let's take a look at AbacusLaw. I pulled up, similarly, I pulled a matter record in AbacusLaw, it happens to be a litigation case. Similarly, I'm clicking on this padlock, you'll notice it's open now, so I like clicked on that and I get viewing privileges for this case.

What I'm looking at now is more the individual case level where I can say currently, this group of individuals, whether they're a work group, and you will notice that one of them is the litigation work group, but in the AbacusLaw program you can create work groups of any type, but I can actually go in and grant can view or restrict-cannot view. This matters specifically on a user-by-user basis.

If it's a workgroup, if I double-click on it, I can actually see the individuals within that workgroup. It may be that if a work group is too broad, I can go in and select the three or the five members of that work group, but it's a nice way to make sure I have that visibility.

Also, similar to Amicus Attorney, at a permission level, it's important to grant or restrict the ability to apply these viewing privileges because that's where you control at the ethical wall level. If someone with administrative rights needs to come in and be able to say yes or no, of course, going forward would be with someone who has access to that file in order to make changes as they may come up, but this is a concept and this is the use case or functionality on how you would do this if you wanted to say for this Cal. Computers versus Multimedia case, I want to hand-select the individuals who can view the matter.

Also in AbacusLaw, there's the ability to create organizational controls, and I touched on this earlier, but this is where the power of the system comes in. For instance, what we're looking at here is a civil litigation case, I could use that civil litigation case code to create a profile or an organizational level automatic application of viewing privileges. It could be that Allyson, Mike, and John, this group have access to some litigation cases but not bankruptcy. So, as new cases may be created or entered into the system, those viewing privileges would be applied to them automatically. It's nice for you to automate that process as well, but that's the concept.

We understand now that the need for an ethical wall is really protection, and it's really the protection of the client because if that protection is breached, it creates in essence, there's a conflict of interest and the firm would have to respond accordingly. So really, the goal of this is to make sure that proactively you have the ability to assign on a record-by-record basis these types of viewing privileges and then going forward there's peace of mind knowing that each individual case has its protection and the software is proactive in making sure that when I log in I see the information that I should have access to and have the ability to edit or send it. Then, Allyson has her credentials and her viewing privileges and her ethical wall realistically could be very different than mine as needed. Those tools are built into both case management programs and are available as part of the latest versions of each.

Q & A

How much does this cost? Are there additional costs?

This is built into the software and is available to you as part of your subscription to either of the case management programs that we mentioned in our discussion. That's a good question, but it is part of the core feature set and is available to you at no additional cost.

If you wanted help on the how to initiate it or how to enable it, there's both in-program help, which I think can be helpful, but many people don't read the manual that often, but you can also call us. We can walk you through it because it's essentially important to set it up correctly, and that's something we can help you with.

Where do you click to find this window?

Okay. I'll just arrow back. If I'm on the file in Amicus Attorney and believe me, Tammy, I don't know which of these programs you're using, but this restricts icon if you don't see this on your files, give us a call because maybe it's a system option that you need to enable. But once it is enabled you will see that restrict button, in essence, that you can click in order to see the restrictions control.

Then, if you're using AbacusLaw, on the matter record, you have this button, this kind of padlock button. If it's a closed padlock, it means that the viewing privileges have beenapplied, and if it's open, you can click it. It is a functional button that then brings up the viewing privileges for that record. Then, in your file set up system options, advanced, is where you can go to the organizational level controls for ethical wall controls, let's say, or configurations that apply for cases of a specific type or something like that that we touched on. I hope that's clear.

Why is the restrict function notice not at the top of the client file near the header so that it is immediately noticeable?

The function to flag the client at the top of the profile and on the bottom. That's a good point. So your concern is that being down here you won't be able to see it. Now, it does change so it's read and it does stand out quite a bit, similar to those deadline events that you see in a calendar where if it's nearing the deadline the text switches to red, that restrict little notification icon do turn red. But I appreciate that question and I will pass it on to our development team. I hear exactly what you're saying, which is, "I would like it may be front and center or at the top because we all read, or we've been accustomed to reading top-left and left to right order." I'll bring that up, but I appreciate that.

Currently, you do have the ability to see that restrict button turn red once it's been enabled so I think that may be helpful for you, but I appreciate that and I will pass that on to our development team. We're always looking for feedback because, ideally, clearly, this is an important function and we love to hear from you as to how it might be best implemented to make sure that you can imagine at the top either the client name or the case name, it could have some icon up there as well. I hear what you're saying in and I will pass it on. I appreciate the feedback.

If we apply the ethical wall to a number of cases in AbacusLaw, how do we know it's working?

Similar to Tammy's question, the actual icon changes and it's designated, one, it's a closed padlock but also the color will change, so when you pull up a case of that type, if you have access to it, you will see that icon in a different state. That's one way to know that it's working, that you are in the group that can view that matter based on the ethical wall.

The flip-side of that is if you go to your matters list in the AbacusLaw program or in Amicus Attorney, you would not see the matter name on your list. Now, the problem with that is not seeing it is not necessarily a confirmation, but those are really the two ways. The goal of the ethical wall is to prevent access to it, however, if you do have access and you're granted access, you can actually pull that up in the program. I'm sorry, pull up that record in the program and take a look at that icon. I think that's the current way on a file-by-file basis, give you a visual reference as to the ethical wall or the viewing privilege status, the restrictions of the case you're looking at that time.

How does this help ushire new lawyers?

What we've heard from a lot of clients is as they grow, as firms merge, this becomes a pressing issue because day-to-day, even if you're a high-volume firm, you're able to do your conflicts check, bring in additional cases as needed and apply ethical wall viewing privileges or restrictions to them as needed.

I think to Thomas' question is, so what happens when a large number of cases or an associate or a partner or a new staff come on and they bring with them, let's say, years of managing many cases for many clients? How do we perform this type of check in that situation? I hear that.

Really one of the goals of being able to leverage technology to do what we discussed today is understanding that there are multiple uses for the ethical wall. Here's a real-world scenario, so we worked with some firms recently where they brought in an entirely new group of people. They're actually merged firms, and they had two bankruptcy groups that then became one much larger group. That was a situation where in helping them migrate, the new firm migrated their existing data into, at that point was it was an AbacusLaw system, to migrate their information, their caseload and their client load into the AbacusLaw system, our professional services team worked with them as part of that import process to perform, in essence, a conflict of interest check at a batch level and then be able to apply it.

It turned out that there were a handful of cases that needed to be put behind an ethical wall, so that was one of the things that we could help them with as part of the migration process. Not only the training for the new staff and how to use these new systems, not only bringing their data in so at that point the AbacusLaw database was up-to-date and complete, but helping them as a project in helping move them into an environment where everybody had access to the information they needed, get everything organized along as one entity, that was previously two. That was something that we could help them.

We understand the concern there where you bring on new staff, and it's not just one name to check for conflict of interest, instead it could be hundreds of names that become part of your active contact database or people database and your cases as well, both active and inactive, because even in active cases, clearly part of that conflict check and that's where a lot of the ethical wall needs are triggered.

To your question that is how we've done it in the past with firms, especially in that context where either it's a new staff member with a lot of cases or two groups or a firm that's growing and learning on a significant new number of contacts and cases. We can help you standardize that process and make it as efficient and automated as possible by doing database comparisons and then running the conflict of interest check against new databases.

Our goal is to help you be proactive in identifying the types of records that do need to be reviewed. That viewing privileges or restrictions do need to be applied to, and that's one of the things we can help you with is to work closely with you as early as possible in that process and then we can do a lot of, not only the cleaning and the preparing of the data but also performing some of these steps against the data at that time can be of great value. Then, the first instance of that case in your case management system will already have viewing privileges applied to it, which is I think a requirement. Good question,

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