Alexa, Am I Violating Legal Ethics?

By Peggy Wojkowski

Thomson Reuters announced its release of Workplace Assistant, which allows attorneys to record, inquire about, and use a timer to calculate billing entries via Amazon Echo and Alexa-enabled devices. The new Workplace Assistant interacts with the existing Elite 3E platform used by law firms to manage workflow and to streamline tasks. Thomson Reuters indicates that Workplace Assistant “always works within the firm’s security walls.” Workplace Assistant does, however, interact with the Amazon environment, although Thomson Reuter’s considers the interaction “low touch,” which means very little interaction between Workplace Assistant and the Amazon environment. This minimal interaction, beyond a firm’s security walls, could draw ethical concerns for the attorneys who use the Alexa-enabled aspects of Workplace Assistant.

Alexa- enabled voice assistants, such as Amazon Echo and Amazon Dot, respond to voice requests from users. These devices either stream or record the voice requests to servers which access the requests and form responses. For the Alexa-enabled Amazon products, the wake-up word, “Alexa,” activates these voice assistants, which then respond to voice requests.  Therefore, in order to hear the wake-up word, the voice assistant’s microphone must be active even when a user is not actually making a request, i.e., the voice assistant is listening, even when the device is not awake. When an Alexa-enabled product is used with the Workplace Assistant, the device is listening for the wake-up word inside the attorney’s office. The Workplace Assistant manages the voice requests regarding client billing with the client information from the Elite 3E platform, the law firm management software. Even if the Elite 3E platform is ultimately handling any voice requests pertaining to billing, it is not clear who is handling any other voice requests or who has access to the microphone when Alexa is not awake.  This scenario requires investigation in order to comply with the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

The American Bar Association’s Model Rule 1.6 pertaining to confidentiality of information in an attorney-client relationship indicates in part (c) that “a lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client” (emphasis added.) The committee provides insight as to what defines reasonable efforts in Comment 18 to Model Rule 1.6, which requires attorneys to act competently to preserve confidentiality. In acting competently, attorneys know not to discuss confidential information in public places, with others outside of the legal team, or with those individuals with whom communication is not necessary to adequately represent clients.  Because competent representation includes awareness of individuals (physically and electronically) present when discussing confidential information, the Workplace Assistant could pose a problem as to conclusively determining who is listening, or has access to, the microphone and its recordings on the Alexa-enabled device.

Model Rule 1.1 also requires that an attorney provide competent representation to clients and, in its comments, addresses technology used by attorneys. According to Comment 8 of Model Rule 1.1, this competency includes the attorney keeping up-to-date on changing law “including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”  Therefore, attorneys cannot blindly use technology without knowing the security measures and the possible ramifications on client representation. The benefit of the Workplace Assistant is the time saved in recording and inquiring about billing. The risk is having an active microphone within an attorney’s office able to record client-privileged information, which may be a risk that attorneys do not want to take.

However, Amazon does have another product, the Amazon Tap, which may lessen the risk associated with voice assistants but still allow attorneys to use the Workplace Assistant program.  Although this device also uses Alexa to respond to voice requests, a wake-up word is not required because the user must touch the button on the top of the device to activate the microphone. Therefore, the microphone is not listening for the wake-up words, which alleviates some concerns regarding confidentiality.

Either way, attorneys may still hesitate to use any of these gadgets due to actual reactions from clients, who may step into the office for a meeting and see the microphone in an area where they want to discuss private, confidential information.

Peggy Wojkowski graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law in May 2017.  She will be joining a large IP boutique firm in September 2017 after sitting for the Illinois bar exam in July 2017.