SCMP Monday, December 4, 2000


Law firm goes online despite security fears

HEIKE PHILLIPS

A law firm has launched an online service for clients, believed to be the first of its kind in the SAR and possibly the world.
But critics have voiced fears that that clients' confidential legal records risk falling into the wrong hands.
The comprehensive service launched by Robert W. H. Wang & Co last week enables clients to log on to a personal page - using a personal identity number and user name - to check on the status and history of their cases.
Clients can also download or print out documents related to their cases, including the latest correspondence and drafts.
"Not only can clients now access a full range of legal services via the Internet but they can for the first time keep track of their cases on a personal page," founding partner Robert Wang Wei-han said. "We believe this type of service could well be a world first."
The new service has received a lukewarm reception from other law firms, which say it does not further existing services and raises questions about client confidentiality. Some firms have set up information Web pages but do not charge people for using them, unlike Mr Wang's site.
Johnson Stokes & Master does not believe the new Web site is a major breakthrough.
"We're not sure that this new type of service is really a big step forward from the current situation, where clients can communicate with law firms via e-mails," said David Ellis, head of the e-business law group at Johnson Stokes & Master. "It is not so much revolutionary as it is part of a whole evolutionary process that many firms, including ourselves, are undergoing."
Another firm said it had abandoned a plan to launch a similar type of service earlier in the year because of security concerns. "We appreciate the innovative thinking, but there are issues such as client confidentiality and the difficulty of communicating via the Internet in general that have to be resolved before going online," said Thomas Tse Lin-chung, of Yip, Tse & Tang solicitors.
He said present technology did not offer 100 per cent protection. "There is still the risk of confidential information about clients and their cases being accessed, such as through computer hacking," he said. A further deterrent was the difficulty associated with not consulting clients personally. "It's not really practical in situations where discussions have to take place and where comments and opinions have to be exchanged," Mr Tse said.
But Mr Wang believes his firm's new online service is convenient and as safe as online banking. "It is up to the individual client to decide whether or not they wish to make use of the 'personal page' service. We have a secure system to ensure that client confidentiality will not be breached," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Law Society of Hong Kong said there was no restriction on legal firms offering their services on the Internet. "Law firms do not need to seek approval for running an online legal service. Web pages mostly have a disclaimer, so it is up to the individual to decide whether they want to access a page and run the risk," she said.
Robert W.H. Wang & Co spells out in terms and conditions that it will not be liable for damages or losses arising from events such as hardware or system failure, malfunction or breakdown, failure of Internet transmission or links, system hacking, software contamination or corruption.