Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Misuse of Student Passwords

Law students have “free” access to Westlaw and Lexis while pursuing their law degrees so they can hone their online research skills before they become practicing attorneys. Both companies offer discounted access in hope that students will turn to them in the future for their legal research needs. Westlaw and Lexis require students to sign an agreement when they first register their passwords and restrict students’ use of their academic passwords to educational or nonprofit purposes.

Although practitioners may have tried or succeeded in using students’ “free” access to Westlaw and Lexis in the past, the issue has recently come to the forefront. In January 2012, the Legal Skills Profs Blog and the ABA Journal ran articles pointing to a recent Utah State Bar Ethics Advisory Committee opinion discussing the matter.

The opinion states that “numerous students have reported that practicing attorneys have conditioned initial or continuing employment as a law clerk upon the student’s violation of the agreement with the research services.” The committee finds that “A lawyer who encourages or participates in a law student’s violation of the student’s contractual obligation to the electronic research service violates the Rules of Professional Conduct … . Misuse of the student’s privileges is dishonest.”  The committee bases its ruling on Rules of Professional Conduct 5.3 and 8.4(b) and (c).

Firm administrators should pay close attention to the actions of their employees and what they are asking their student workers, interns, or clerks to do in order to ensure that Westlaw and Lexis agreements are not violated. Firms should strive to model ethical behavior if they want to hire good, ethical employees.

Valerie Aggerbeck

University of St Thomas Law School, Minneapolis

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