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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Private Information in Public Places

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Above the Law had an interesting post on the intersection of confidentiality, bluetooth ear-pieces and the economic downturn. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to New York, passengers on the train from D.C. to New York, including a law student tipster got an earful a firms layoff plans from an indiscreet partner on a bluetooth headset.

This afternoon I boarded a train from Washington bound for Penn Station…. I, along with all of the other passengers, were sitting quietly when the man directly behind me decided to make a phone call using his bluetooth. He was talking so loudly that I think most people in the car were able to hear him.

His conversation, though he stressed how necessary it was to be kept secret (ah, the irony), detailed the current plans of Pillsbury to lay off somewhere in the range of 15-20 attorneys from four offices by the end of March, including a few senior associates with low billable hours and two or three first-year associates. I wouldn’t have believed it except for the fact that he identified himself to the call as Bob Robbins, who I learned is the leader of the firm’s Corporate & Securities practice section, and was talking to Rick Donaldson, who I learned was COO. What’s more, he was NAMING NAMES over the phone!

The Recorder caught up with the firm to confirm the story in Pillsbury Confirms Layoff Leak.

“We apologize for the unfortunate manner in which our deliberations about reductions have become public,” Pillsbury said in a statement issued Thursday morning.

The story offered some disturbing observations on a culture of loose lips among lawyers:

Firms are increasingly wary of the instant flow of information made possible by blogs, which are more receptive to anonymous information than traditional media. “Most firms assume that any communications they make internally, particular to associates, will get on a blog, and they try to tailor those communications accordingly,” said Newport Beach, Calif.-based consultant Peter Zeughauser.

Comments posted below blog stories often reveal confidential information as well. By the end of the day, more than 300 comments were logged on the ATL story, with one poster claiming to be a Pillsbury associate who had been told to leave by the end of March and wasn’t offered severance. Pillsbury declined to discuss layoff decisions beyond its statement.

Loose lips sink ships. Lawyers are natural communicators and information purveyors, but they’re also often entrusted with sensitive and confidential information, and being cognizant those limits is a skill worth developing early.

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