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Oops! Cutting and pasting can cause big problems for lawyers

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2017. Frank Augstein/Associated Press/File

The fact that criminal charges have been secretly brought against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange came to light in a stunning way: A federal prosecutor apparently cut and pasted language from a secret document relating to Assange’s case into a document in another case — then filed that document in court.

What’s the legal term again for “Oops”?

Cutting and pasting has been recognized for years as a potential pitfall for lawyers.

“This is definitely a trap for the unwary lawyer,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association. “You ought to be very cautious and careful on cutting and pasting and what is eventually electronically filed in court. . . . There’s a great chance for human error to occur.”

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“The government definitely has egg on its face,” he said.

“Cutting and pasting is a common and well-known danger in the legal profession,” Mark E. Wojcik, a professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago, said in an e-mail.

“Unfortunately many lawyers don’t budget enough time for careful proofreading and revision. Many lawyers work on documents up until the last hours of a deadline and there just isn’t enough time to proofread. Another problem happens when lawyers try to proofread only by looking at their computer screen instead of a printed copy of a document,” he said.

Nancy Soonpaa, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law, said a judge who was a recent guest speaker at the school spoke of seeing documents “with inapplicable law or the wrong party’s name because the attorney had recycled or cut-and-pasted and not proofread carefully.”

The judge indicated that cutting and pasting from online research databases was problematic and “tended to go hand-in-hand with overall lack of care in drafting or demonstrating deep analysis,” Soonpaa said in an e-mail.

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Soonpaa said boilerplate language can be “a starting point for appropriate modification to fit the particular document into which it is being inserted. The danger comes in not reviewing boilerplate critically (and when necessary, modifying it) before incorporating it into a document.”

“If a reader can tell that the writer has simply cut-and-pasted . . . then the writer hasn’t sufficiently processed the information. Good legal writing looks more like a woven coverlet than a patchwork quilt,” she said.

New York attorney Robert D. Lang, in a February 2017 column in Law360, said cutting and pasting “can continue to be an effective tool” for busy lawyers. “However, where there is only a fleeting review, a potential of a disaster can easily be created.”

He said that such errors can send a signal of sloppiness and inattentiveness to other lawyers in the firm, to opposing lawyers, and to judges.

“We can hardly expect judges to take our work seriously if we don’t,” he said.

Victoria Gleason, a Rochester, N.Y., attorney, wrote in a 2011 article in the legal publication The Daily Record, “While not uncommon, copying and pasting is simply a bad practice. It can lead to carelessness and oversight.”

She noted a 2011 New York federal case in which the judge chastised the lawyer for obvious copying, saying, “[T]he quotes [in the papers] clearly have been copied and pasted from another case, as they discuss a ‘taxi . . . found, riddled with bullet holes, mere yards away from the spot where the victim left it’ and a victim who was ‘alert to the general threat of danger which cab drivers faced.’ It is inconceivable how counsel could copy and paste quotes in two pages of his brief discussing a taxi driver victim, when this case involves the murder of a pet-store owner.”

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Gleason advised lawyers, “If you’re going to do it, at least take a minute to read your papers to ensure that your sexual harassment case doesn’t involve facts of a bank robbery (unless, of course, it does).”


Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.