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Survey reveals instant messaging, voice mail use present litigation challenges

In its Fourth Annual Litigation Trends Survey of corporate counsel at U.S. companies, law firm Fulbright & Jaworski LLP surveyed respondents on their policies on the retention of employee voice messages and instant messages. These technologies are playing an ever-growing role in discovery and disclosure during so-called litigation hold periods, the law firm noted.

Fifty-three percent of in-house counsel said employees use instant messaging (IM), while the rate among billion-dollar firms was 70 percent. As instant messaging gains widespread use at many companies, businesses have the added burden of capturing and retaining those running online conversations in the event they are needed in a litigation hold instruction.

The portion of companies logging employee IMs is considerable—28 percent said they retain the messages as routine policy or in certain cases; for billion-dollar firms, the segment was 40 percent. While many companies may archive IMs for only several weeks or a month, 43 percent keep them for two months or longer, including 15 percent holding on for at least a year; among large companies, 25 percent maintain IMs for one year. One-third of all companies permit employees to attach documents to instant messaging, which can take on added significance in light of the extended holding periods in place at some businesses.

Besides IMs, companies these days have to consider holding on to another ephemeral slice of office life: voicemail. Forty percent of in-house counsel said they have a retention policy for employee voice messages. As with IM, much of the phone chatter is saved for a month or less, but 31 percent of companies store their voicemail for at least two months, including nine percent with a one-year or longer hold policy. The retention protocols become even more complex considering that 37 percent of companies said their phone systems allow voice messages to be forwarded to others via e-mail, creating a potentially huge web of vocal documentation.

Further complicating e-discovery and document retention practices is the line that employees regularly cross between their business and personal discourse. Thirty-seven percent of the Fulbright survey respondents said they allow employees to access outside e-mail accounts using company-issued computers; for billion-dollar companies, the allowance rate was 44 percent; and for tech shops, it rose to 61 percent. Meanwhile, 74 percent of companies let employees access the corporate network from their home computers. The high degree of co-mingled communication could lead to unexpected challenges in a litigation context.

With data breaches and electronic security lapses becoming all too common, many companies have beefed up their privacy policies, yet only 39 percent of in-house counsel said their firms have in place a full-time privacy officer; 60 perce nt said they have no current plans to hire one.

Health care providers have the highest level of privacy officers at 71 percent, followed by retailers (61 percent) and financial services firms (59 percent). Technology firms are quick to tout their robust privacy tools and practices, but only 35 percent have an in-place privacy officer.

For additional information on this and other HR topics, consult CCH Human Resources Management or Personnel Practices/Communications.

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