Law firm gets foxy with e-mail security

Phillips Fox has set a technology precedent as Australia's first commercial law firm to introduce a secure e-mail communications system.

Admitting the legal industry was not at the cutting edge of IT, the firm's information services director, Shane Martin, said Phillips Fox was using the technology to leverage business opportunities - particularly when dealing with banks and government, which appreciated the use of encryption.

He said Phillips Fox had bought 100 travelling user licenses of ZixMail that could be used where necessary, at a cost of $18,000 a year.

Despite having 1500 users in Australia and New Zealand, the licenses could move according to need because the company had clients that required secure communications, such as the Department of Defence.

"We provide our clients with the licences when necessary at no cost, so it has certainly become a selling point," Martin said. "The product also differentiates us in tender processes. Tenderers are asking about security and this is happening increasingly when dealing with big clients.

"We looked at other secure e-mail options, but they were too difficult because it required software at the client's end and having to deal with their IT made it complicated. We spent 18 months assessing our options."

Phillips Fox has never been IT-shy. The company first put PCs with full Internet access on desks in 1991, but 18 months ago had to introduce Surfcontrol's Internet monitoring solution because of excessive and costly use - which led to Martin being dubbed the "Fun Police".

"It was not malicious in any way," he said. "Users would have streaming radio on all day and were surprised when I told them it was costly."

The ZixMail product, provided by AXS-One, was trialled with 18 IT and intellectual property lawyers who were familiar with SSL and Internet banking. "E-mail is a legal document that is discoverable in proceedings, so it is my job to educate partners [to make them] aware of IT issues," Martin said. "Advice from partners is often e-mailed and there needs to be quality control and risk management in this process."

He said secure e-mail was necessary because the disclaimer at the bottom of e-mails was meaningless and had inadvertently got lawyers in trouble. When an e-mail had done the circuit and there were at least half a dozen company names on the list of recipients, the last e-mail - which might be a legal firm - could seem like the original sender.

"They may think it originated from your company because you're the last name on the chain and the disclaimer certainly makes it look that way, although it didn't come from you at all," Martin said. "I know of a lawyer who took a hoax seriously and called police. A respected company was at the bottom of that e-mail and it was contacted as a result of the disclosure and hoax."

Martin said his biggest challenge this year had been a $5 million project to integrate the company's financials, which went live last week. "Generally, the biggest challenge for IT managers is educating business managers on the baseline cost of keeping the lights on to maintain IT," he said. "ROI expectations are a challenge."

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