Law Firm Security: Privacy and Data Security Laws that Affect Your Law Firm

At this point in the cybersecurity game, it’s a given that to prevent a breach, law firms must take every precaution to protect its data as well as the valuable data of its clients. What may not be as clear are the obligations that law firms, or any other third party, owe to certain organizations via industry-specific privacy and data security laws and regulations. These are put in place by foundations, government laws, and agency policies to ensure that they are not vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks.

Privacy and Data Security Laws and Regulations

Although there are many organizations that are subject to these laws, this article will address the most high-profile organizations, including the following:

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

HIPAA applies to covered entities such as health plans, health care clearinghouses and certain health care providers. Because these entities do not operate in a vacuum and often rely on the services of third-party businesses, there are provisions that allow these entities to share information with business associates and law firms.

A business associate “is a person or entity that performs certain functions or activities that involve the use or disclosure of protected health information on behalf of, or provides services to, a covered entity,” according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website.

Before information is shared with a business associate, the entity must first receive satisfactory assurances that the information will only be used for the purposes for which it was obtained, that the information will be safeguarded and that the information will help the covered entity to perform its duties. The satisfactory assurances must be in writing to ensure compliance with privacy and data security laws.

Gramm Leach Bliley Act (GLBA)

The GLBA was enacted to require financial institutions to explain their information-sharing practices to their customers and to safeguard vulnerable customer data from a security breach.

Under the Safeguards Rule of the GLBA, all financial institutions must protect consumer collected information from a security breach. Usually, data collected includes names, addresses and phone numbers; bank and credit card account numbers; income and credit histories; and Social Security numbers.

Further, financial institutions are required to ensure that parties with whom they are doing business must also be able to safeguard data with which they have been entrusted, such as law firms. Financial institutions must “Select service providers with the skills and experience to maintain appropriate safeguards,” according to the FTC website to ensure compliance of privacy and data security laws.

The FTC provides a detailed list of tips that financial institutions, as well as third-parties, can use to set up a strong security system to prevent a data breach of a customer’s information.

Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS)

The PCI was founded by American Express, Discover Financial Services, JCB International, MasterCard, and Visa, Inc. with the intent to “develop, enhance, disseminate and assist with the understanding of security standards for payment account security,” according to its website.

The standards apply to all entities that store, process or transmit cardholder data. This would include law firms, of course. The website lists 12 requirements that must be maintained, including:

  1. Install and maintain a firewall configuration to protect cardholder data.
  2. Do not use vendor-supplied defaults for system passwords and other security parameters.
  3. Protect stored cardholder data.
  4. Encrypt transmission of cardholder data across open, public networks.
  5. Use and regularly update anti-virus software or programs.
  6. Develop and maintain secure systems and applications.
  7. Restrict access to cardholder data by business need-to-know.
  8. Assign a unique ID to each person with computer access.
  9. Restrict physical access to cardholder data.
  10. Track and monitor all access to network resources and cardholder data.
  11. Regularly test security systems and processes.
  12. Maintain a policy that addresses privacy and data security laws and regulations for employees and contractors.

Federal Reserve System

The Federal Reserve System issued the Guidance on Managing Outsourcing Risk publication to address concerns about third-party vendors or service providers and the risks of a data breach. The Federal Reserve defines service provider as, “all entities that have entered into a contractual relationship with a financial institution to provide business functions or activities.”

The publication indicates that a financial institution should treat the service provider risk management program commensurate with the level of risk presented by each service provider. “It should focus on outsourced activities that have a substantial impact on a financial institution’s financial condition; are critical to the institution’s ongoing operations; involve sensitive customer information or new bank products or services; or pose material compliance risk,” according to the publication.

An effective program should include the following:

  1. Risk assessments;
  2. Due diligence and selection of service providers;
  3. Contract provisions and considerations;
  4. Incentive compensation review;
  5. Oversight and monitoring of service providers; and
  6. Business continuity and contingency plans.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)

The FDIC issued a Guidance for Managing Third-Party Risk where the agency makes clear that an institution’s board of directors and senior management are responsible for the activities and risks associated with third-party vendors. This includes a breach into a third-party’s system. Among other third-party organizations, the publication lists significant organizations where “the relationship has a material effect on the institution’s revenues or expenses; the third party performs critical functions; the third-party stores, accesses, transmits, or performs transactions on sensitive customer information.” All of these could involve law firms that work with financial institutions.

The publication summarizes risks that third-party entities may pose, including strategic risk, reputations risk, operational risk, transaction risk, credit risk, compliance risk, and other risks. It also summarizes a risk management process, which includes the following elements of (1) risk assessment, (2) due diligence in selecting a third party, (3) contract structuring and review, and (4) oversight.


Being a third-party cybersecurity risk may be foreign territory to most law firms. But many organizations have in place privacy and data security laws and regulations to protect systems that could be vulnerable to a cybersecurity breach. It behooves law firms to be aware of these laws and regulations to be able to implement the laws and regulations as thoroughly and as expeditiously as possible.

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