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On Balance

VPN: A Simple Step Toward Cybersecurity

By Megan Zavieh

Many lawyers are intimidated by technology issues, including how to keep their data safe. Yet in a world where large cities can be held up by ransomware attacks and hackers can shut down multinational law firms, we are far past the point where solo and small firm lawyers can ignore cybersecurity issues. Plus, under the ABA Model Rules, we have a duty to maintain technological competence. And it is hard to see how operating with no security in place can possibly meet this burden.

One simple step every solo and small firm lawyer can take is the use of a VPN.

What Is a VPN?

A VPN is a virtual private network. A simple way to think of it is that a VPN is a private tunnel from your computer to the internet and back. If you’ve worked for an organization of any significant size in the past 20 years, you’ve probably used a VPN to access its network remotely. My first exposure to a VPN was in BigLaw, when I needed a key fob to access the firm servers from my home computer. Without that fob and its constantly changing code, I was locked out completely.

Large companies with the resources to put toward cybersecurity were long ago stopping us from accessing their networks remotely. We as solos and small firms need to catch up.

Risk Is Not Just for Big Firms

Small firms may not have dedicated mailroom staff or 24-hour word processing, but we are still vulnerable to cyberattacks. In fact, the legal industry is a huge sitting duck for cybercrime. Hackers would love access to law firm data. The ABA Journal reported on a study done by cybersecurity firm LogicForce in which it was revealed that one-third of survey respondents, with a survey sample size of 200 law firms, experienced some form of cyber-breach.

While larger law firms are certainly bigger targets, there is nothing to stop a hacker from focusing on a solo practice or small firm. In fact, we are so much less likely to have a large infrastructure, IT security and even insurance that we really are easy targets.

A VPN Cuts the Risk

If the thought of a cyberattack has you concerned, you might also feel overwhelmed thinking of how you can protect your practice. After all, lawyers are trained to be lawyers, not technology experts.

A great place to start is by installing a VPN. It won’t prevent every possible attack, but it will significantly cut down the risk — particularly when lawyers are using public Wi-Fi connections when conducting any type of firm business.

Given that so many lawyers are oblivious to the risks of logging in to firm email and client documents while sitting at their neighborhood Starbucks or on an airplane, it is safe to say installing a VPN would be a major step forward in security for most firms.

A VPN Is So Simple

Installing a VPN is not only effective, it is quite simple. This is not something you need an IT director to do.

There are many options on the market, and simply Googling the phrase “best VPN for law firms” will get you going in the right direction. Do your homework and pick a solution that fits your firm’s needs.

After purchasing a VPN, you simply install it on your computer and validate the product key. Follow instructions from the provider, and you’re online and protected.

Using a VPN could not be easier. When I first looked to install a VPN in my firm, I envisioned the key fob of my BigLaw days. I imagined that it was going to be so cumbersome to log in to any wireless network or new internet connection that I’d want to give up entirely. If this is a hang-up preventing you from looking into VPN, let me put your mind at ease.

Once you install a VPN on your computer, you turn it on, and then continue your work as usual. You don’t even notice that it is there: It adds no extra steps to your work, and it basically operates invisibly in the background. There is no key fob, and no annoyance.

Protect Your Phone, Too

Rare is the lawyer today who is not checking email or accessing firm documents via their smartphone. A VPN works there, too. Most VPN providers offer subscriptions to protect multiple devices, so you can protect your computer at work, a laptop, your iPhone and other mobile devices you may use for work. If your subscription covers more than your work devices, add devices you use at home. That iPad your kids use to play Angry Birds? If you ever check your bank account from that device, install the VPN on it, too. It can’t hurt to secure every device you own that connects to the internet.

It’s Too Risky to Ignore the Solution’s Simplicity

Most of us would not imagine working without some form of antivirus software. A VPN should have the same status in your technology arsenal. Since it is so simple to install and use, there really is no excuse for any law firm to operate without one, since VPNs can provide a significant degree of protection from a major threat.

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Megan Zavieh Megan Zavieh

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of “The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.” At Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action and guidance on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Her latest book, “The Modern Lawyer: Ethics and Technology in an Evolving World,” (ABA 2021 ) covers how to run a modern practice while staying in line with current ethics rules. She podcasts on Lawyers Gone Ethical, blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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