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Ethical walls are restrictions that prevent parties like lawyers subject to special professional or regulatory obligations from sharing information. They can be established via policies, but are often supplemented with technological controls.
These controls, such as information security and confidentiality enforcement systems, are used by organizations to restrict access from affected personnel to information they have been “walled off” from.
For example, organizations that employ electronic document management software may use specialized tools to prevent certain individuals from accessing materials subject to an ethical wall.
Several industries have professional codes or rules that specify the need for ethical walls. For example, media entities typically limit interaction between business stakeholders and content producers. This is to prevent those that buy and sell advertising from shaping the editorial decisions made by the organization.
Importantly, appearances matter. Even if no interaction or information sharing is taking place, the potential for breaches to occur may cast a pall over the organization’s compliance status and even subject it to professional censure.
The legal industry makes significant use of ethical walls. For obvious reasons, law firms and lawyers cannot represent both sides of the same legal matter. It would be a conflict of interest.
When lawyers move between law firms or firms take on new clients, new conflicts can arise. (Consider the case of a lawyer who conducted patent litigation for Apple going to work for a firm representing a defendant of the case he or she worked on.)
In these situations, law firms can still take on lawyers with permission (waivers) from affected clients. To get waivers, they often must describe the specific steps they are taking to set up an ethical wall to block the lawyer’s ability to share information. Depending on the jurisdiction in question, the firm may even be able to set up an ethical wall without consent.
In all cases, organizations that set up ethical walls should be prepared to report on the specific measures they have taken and the timeliness and effectiveness of those measures. If not, they risk losing the ability to represent a client (disqualification), censure or sanction, and significantly negative media and public relations fallout.
Ethical Walls Information & Resources
Making the business case for investing in ethical walls --- Case studies delivered by law firm staff describing the drivers and processes by which they implemented ethical walls.
Law firm ethical walls products and respective market share --- Details on a wide range of available solutions for implementing walls.
Article: "Confidentiality Screens - Not just for Conflicts" -- Review of legal requirements for ethical, confidentiality and data privacy walls.