There’s much more to metadata than you’ve probably heard. And it’s not just law enforcement agencies who are interested. Clients too can utilise the metadata you’re willingly (and probably unknowingly) divulging to gain significant insight about the conduct of your matter.
What is it?
There are many different definitions of metadata. At its simplest, it’s information about other data. Lawyers will mainly be caught out by the metadata attaching to Microsoft Word documents. A lot of information about your document is captured, which will stay with that document unless you take proactive steps to remove it. This includes, for example:
- The date the document was created and the author.
- The total time spent editing, the editors and the date the document was last modified.
- Document template information and information about your document management system.
- Comments, tracking and text which has been formatted as ‘hidden’ can remain in the document as well, despite it looking ‘clean’.
Should you be worried?
It depends. The perennial comment about having ‘something to hide’ is certainly apt. Would you like your clients knowing who actually wrote their advice? What about the real length of time it took to draft the contract you spent “all week” drafting? And let's not forget the horror of those irresistible opportunities to comment on errors or absurd drafting and to make those inevitable work-related private jokes that we all have being revealed.
If clients knew your secrets, their enthusiasm for your work might wane significantly, especially once a bill arrives. Combined with invoice benchmarking software [LINK], metadata enables detailed insights into the conduct of your matter to be obtained. Your professional standards partner or law society ethics committee may also take a keen interest.
There’s a need for vigilance outside of client work, too. Reusing pitch templates for different clients in competition with each other may reveal more than you wish. Business development website articles purportedly created after a particular event may be revealed to have been created much earlier, or authored by someone completely different. Anonymous submissions to inquiries may be traced back to your firm or even to the particular author.
Metadata is retained even if documents are published online – a potentially significant reputational risk if those anonymised submissions are published. Many ‘anonymous’ leakers have come unstuck by being revealed as the document’s creator.
And don’t think it’s just Word betraying you. PDFs, Excel, PowerPoint and other formats like photos may be revealing more than you realise. The power of this information in litigious matters means an entire forensics industry is being built up based upon metadata.
What can you do?
If your firm doesn’t already have tools to remove metadata from your documents, the chances are one of your existing software providers offers one, such as CleanDocs by DocsCorp. There are also free options such as the ‘Document Inspector’ built into Microsoft Word.
Have you discovered unintentional comments or mark-up in documents you’ve received?