Rising Cybersecurity Threats for Law Firms

According to the 2021 cybersecurity report by the American Bar Association, 25% of law firms reported that they faced a data breach at some point. While that statistic in and of itself is significant, it doesn’t even show the complete picture. The same report in 2019 revealed that 19% of law firms don’t know if they have suffered a data breach.  

Law firms have sensitive, PII (Personal Identifiable Information) on clients as well as businesses. This makes them especially vulnerable to cyber criminals looking to harvest sensitive data. A data breach at a local small legal practice can cost $36,000 in damages. A more worrying statistic probably is that after a data breach, on average 31% of the clients terminate the relationship.  

In this blog, we will explore the biggest cybersecurity threats for law firms, the most common IT compliance regulations that apply to them, and ways to prevent and deal with a data breach. 

What are the biggest cybersecurity threats for law firms?  

From ransomware and phishing to DDoS attacks, third-party vulnerabilities, and insider risks, law firms face various cybersecurity threats that have significant implications on client data protection and overall business operations.

Ransomware  

In 2021, the prominent legal institution Campbell Conroy & O’Neil fell victim to a ransomware assault. The attack carried considerable weight due to the firm’s distinguished clientele, such as Apple, Ford, and British Airways. 

Ransomware, a type of malicious software, poses a significant threat to law firms, as it can infiltrate and propagate across their networks. This malware can potentially contaminate numerous devices and incapacitate entire systems, rendering access to these systems unattainable. The only viable solutions include paying the demanded ransom or restoring data from backup copies. 

Phishing 

Phishing attacks often masquerade as an employee or client, requesting confidential information or disseminating harmful links. When an employee succumbs to a phishing email, the cybercriminal can exploit the purloined data to infiltrate the law firm’s network and exfiltrate sensitive information. 

As most law firms currently rely on cloud storage and digital communication channels, successful phishing attacks can potentially disclose data and confidential client information. There have been previous instances where phishing schemes targeted law firms with the intention of extorting money. 

DDoS 

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are becoming frequent and hard to control. A DDoS attack can also target the law firm’s website, network infrastructure, or applications to cause downtime.  

A DDoS attack is often used as a distraction tactic by cybercriminals. As critical digital infrastructure faces downtime, the attackers deploy more malicious tactics to steal data or deploy malware. 

Third-Party Threats 

Law firms often depend on third-party organizations for different services such as infrastructure management, cloud storage, and application management. Any security incident on the end of these service providers may also lead to compromised security of the law firm’s information security. 

Software supply chain attacks can cause significant damage, such as when the attack on SolarWinds led to the infiltration of PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). Hackers potentially got access to confidential judicial and business information.   

Insider Threats 

A study carried out in 2020 found that 96% of IT leaders in the legal sector believe that insider threats pose a significant risk. The risk of data breach intentionally or accidentally through an employee’s action is a major concern.  

Weak passwords, lack of awareness about threats, malicious intent, disregard for company policies and protocols, etc. are common reasons why insider threats to sensitive information are a considerable risk. 

Most Common IT Compliance Regulations for Legal Professionals 

When we talk about IT security and compliance in legal practice, we must take into account the large number of solo practitioners, too. While larger law firms might have dedicated personnel for cybersecurity and compliance, 80% of the solo practitioners are responsible for their firms’ security. 

Of course, you can’t expect lawyers to be data security experts, leaving a significant chunk of law firms very vulnerable to cyber-attacks and data breaches. The best defense against cybersecurity attacks is adherence to information security standards and regulatory compliance. 

IT compliance not only streamlines information security but also fosters infosec best practices. This helps in building a culture of awareness around the attack trends and helps bring all stakeholders into the realms of information security efforts. Below are the most common IT compliance regulations used in law firms. 

ABA’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct 

According to the American Bar Association’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct, lawyers are obligated to protect their clients’ confidential information from unauthorized access and disclosure by taking reasonable security measures. This includes implementing appropriate measures to prevent data breaches and cyber-attacks. In the event of a breach, lawyers must take prompt action to minimize the damage. Adhering to the ABA’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct demonstrates a commitment to high ethical standards in the legal profession.  

NIST  

The National Institute of Standards and Technology Cyber Security Framework (NIST CSF) provides a comprehensive set of guidelines and best practices for organizations to improve their cybersecurity practices. By following the NIST CSF, law firms can reduce the risk of a data breach, enhance their security posture, and protect sensitive data. This framework helps law firms meet legal and regulatory data privacy and security requirements. 

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GDPR  

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) applies to law firms that handle the personal data of individuals in the European Union (EU). GDPR requires law firms to implement security measures like encryption and access controls to protect EU residents’ personal data. Additionally, law firms must obtain explicit consent from individuals before collecting or processing their personal data, and must notify individuals of any data breaches within 72 hours (about 3 days). 

CCPA 

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) applies to law firms that handle the personal data of California residents. CCPA requires law firms to provide California residents with specific rights, such as the right to access, delete, and opt out of the sale of their personal data. By complying with CCPA, law firms can ensure that they are protecting the privacy of California residents. 

What to do if your law firm experiences a data breach? 

If your law firm experiences a data breach, taking swift and comprehensive action to minimize the damage and protect your clients’ sensitive information is essential. Here are some steps you should take. 

  • Notify your IT team – If you have an IT department or IT service provider, notify them immediately about the data breach. They can take steps to identify the source of the breach, contain it, and prevent further damage. 
  • Secure your systems – Shut down the affected systems or servers immediately to prevent further data loss or unauthorized access. 
  • Notify law enforcement – Contact law enforcement as soon as possible, especially if the breach involves sensitive information such as client, financial, or other personal information. 
  • Notify affected clients – If client data has been compromised, it’s crucial to notify your clients as soon as possible so they can take steps to protect their information. 
  • Conduct an internal investigation – Determine the extent of the data breach and identify the information that has been compromised. If necessary, enlist the help of a third-party forensic investigator. 
  • Review and update security protocols – Review your law firm’s security protocols and make changes as necessary to prevent future data breaches. 
  • Consider legal implications – Consult with legal counsel to determine any potential legal obligations such as notification requirements under state or federal data breach laws. 

How can you help prevent data breaches at your law firm? 

Preventing a data breach should be a top priority for any legal practice that handles sensitive client information. Here are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of a data breach. 

  1. Train your staff – Train your staff on best practices for data security such as password management, avoiding phishing emails, and reporting suspicious activity. 
  2. Keep software up to date – Ensure that all software, including operating systems and security software, is up to date with the latest security patches and updates. 
  3. Limit access – Limit access to sensitive information to only those who need it. Use role-based access control to ensure that staff only have access to information necessary for their job functions. 
  4. Encrypt data – Encrypt sensitive data both at rest and in transit. This includes emails and files stored on servers or in the cloud. 
  5. Use secure Wi-Fi networks – Use secure Wi-Fi networks with strong encryption protocols. Avoid using public Wi-Fi networks for activities involving sensitive or confidential data. 
  6. Conduct regular security audits – Conduct regular security audits to identify vulnerabilities and ensure that security protocols are being followed. 
  7. Have a data breach response plan – Have a data breach response plan in place that outlines the steps to take in case of a data breach.  

When your law firm ensures compliance with IT regulations, most of the above best practices become a part of the compliance process. However, remember that preventing a data breach requires ongoing effort and vigilance. You can reduce the risk of a data breach by ensuring compliance, following best practices, and staying informed about emerging threats. 

Cybersecurity Compliance Consulting for Law Firms 

Contact I.S. Partners to find out more about how we can help your legal practice stay secure and keep up with compliance regulations. 

References 

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