When the lawyers ignore the law

For those of us who work within law firms, we know there is one true and inviolable rule – whatever any law may say, it definitely doesn’t apply to lawyers.

However, the fact that this rule is only in effect inside the heads of lawyers leads to problems for those of us who do have to work within the law. In particular, it brings problems for information services staff, when you uncover activities that the lawyers have been engaged in that they really shouldn’t be. Nothing criminal (no bodies being disposed of in landfill sites, or shipments of suspicious powders being couriered between offices), but things which breach certain contracts, or certain laws. Favourites are:

  • Sharing subscriber-only content with other staff who are not authorised for access to that content
  • Distributing subscriber-only content to clients
  • Sharing passwords for subscriber-only databases
  • Using and distributing material from commercial sources without attribution

We are in a difficult position: we want users to access information, but we want them to do it correctly. Spending all our time telling them that a contract says they can only do X, when they want to do X, Y and Z is often just a waste of time, as they will continue to do exactly what they want, and we have no power to stop them doing it.

So what will get them to listen? So far, I’ve found that money and shame are the only slightly effective motivating factors.

An explanation to the infringer along these lines seems to work quite well – Oh, so you want to breach that contract with a database supplier, eh? You realise that they can monitor exactly what each user/username is doing on their database, right? And whereabouts they’re located when they log in, so they know it’s not possible that you’re in X city and Y city 100 miles apart within 10 minutes? If they decide to investigate this, we may only be able to access that database in future at exorbitant prices, if at all. You are going to cost the firm a LOT of money.

Also, you realise that there’s no current defined limit on the maximum financial penalty that could be imposed for what you’re doing with that copyright material right now?

This one is more about bringing shame on the employer than the individual themselves being ashamed. For certain law breaches, like for copyright legislation, the threat of a legal case being brought against the firm, with the attendant bad publicity, can give enough of a fright to individuals that they stop what they’re doing. At least, they stop doing it while you’re around.

However, these approaches only really work when the infringer is low to mid level experienced – the higher up they progress in power, the less likely they are to listen to you, or even be available to you to discuss it.  And if you do get your points over, and it does worry them, then they’ll just delegate whatever they had been doing to a minion to do…quite often, you. And then they’ll get annoyed when you try and explain why you can’t do what they want!

Does anyone else have experience of good ways to manage users who are doing things with materials and resources that they really shouldn’t be?

Posted on behalf of a Scottish Law Librarians Group member

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