ABA & Client Confidences: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again.

Last December, I blogged on ABA Formal Opinion 479.  It’s an advisory opinion in which the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility stressed that lawyers should not assume that they are free to disclose client information merely because the information is in a public record.

That’s a point that I made in my post Hey Lawyers! STFU!

To bring you up to speed, here’s the analysis with respect to current and former clients:

Current Clients

  • Rule 1.6(a) states that a lawyer “shall not reveal” information relating to the representation of a client unless (1) disclosure is impliedly necessary to carry out the representation; (2) the client consents to disclosure; or (3) one of the exceptions in paragraphs (b) & (c) is met.
  • Notably, “it’s public record” is not one of the exceptions in paragraphs (b) & (c).

Former Clients

  • Rule 1.9(c)(1) prohibits a lawyer from using information relating to the representation of a former client to the former client’s disadvantage unless the information is generally known.  The fact that something is public record does not mean that it is generally known.
  • Rule 1.9(c)(2) states that a lawyer “shall not thereafter reveal” information relating to the representation of a former client except as the rules otherwise authorize or permit. Nothing in the rules authorizes a lawyer to reveal information merely because the information is in a public record.

On March 6, the ABA released advisory opinion 480.  The opinion purports to address the duty of confidentiality as it applies to lawyers who blog.  The ABA Journal and Above The Law reported on the opinion.   In addition, Trisha Rich and Allison Martin Rhodes, law partners at Holland & Knight, blogged on the opinion here.

The opinion strikes me as a bit odd.

First, for an opinion that purports to address lawyers who blog, it really doesn’t.  Indeed, parts of the opinion come off as, how shall I say it, “less than tech savvy.”  For example, the opinion refers to Twitter accounts as a “microblogs . . . that ‘followers’ (people who subscribe to a writer’s online musings) read.”

Twitter is more than a place to read online musings.  Per the Pew Research Center’s latest numbers, 24% of U.S. adults use Twitter, and 46% of those who do visit Twitter every day.  Speaking only for myself, Twitter is where I get my news. I don’t go for “musings.”  I doubt so many Americans do either.

Next, as Attorneys Rich and Rhodes point out,

  • “The unusual thing about the latest opinion, though, is that it breaks very little new ground. The main point of the opinion is simply to reinforce to lawyers that their obligations of confidentiality always apply, even where a lawyer is communicating electronically.”

Indeed, the opinion makes me wonder why someone asked for it.  I mean, really.

As many of you know, whether by following this blog or attending my CLE presentations, I often urge lawyers not to fear tech.  Tech doesn’t require new rules. It’s simply a new forum in which the same old rules apply.  For example, many of the questions you should ask a potential cloud storage vendor are remarkably similar to the questions you’d want answered before renting a unit at the Store-All facility out on the Old County Road.

More specifically, would you have needed an advisory opinion to tell you not to reveal client confidences in op-ed pieces for your local paper? I doubt it.  Then why would you need an advisory opinion on whether it’s okay to reveal client confidences in a blog post?

Again, as Rules 1.6 and 1.9 make clear, unless one of the exceptions is met, IT IS NEVER OK TO REVEAL CLIENT CONFIDENCES.

Anyhow, the opinion isn’t entirely a restatement of the obvious. It includes a helpful tip on a pet peeve of mine.

At many of my seminars, lawyers pose “hypotheticals.”  Some are so detailed that I’d guess that half the audience knows who the lawyer is talking about.

Remember, “but I was at a CLE & said it was a ‘hypo’!” is not one of the exceptions listed in Rule 1.6.  Indeed, as the most recent ABA opinion reminds us:

  • “A violation of Rule 1.6(a) is not avoided by describing public commentary as a
    ‘hypothetical’ if there is a reasonable likelihood that a third party may ascertain the identity or situation of the client from the facts set forth in the hypothetical. Hence, if a lawyer uses a hypothetical when offering public commentary, the hypothetical should be constructed so that there is no such likelihood.”

Finally, as I alluded to above, the opinion reinforces the notion that “it’s public record” is not license to reveal information. On that point, the opinion is not without criticism.  Check out the post from Above The Law.   Among other things, the author, Robert Ambrogi, writes:

  • “So a lawyer may not ‘reveal’ information that is contained in a public record. But how can someone reveal something that is already public? To reveal is to make something public that was secret.”

Interesting point.  I don’t necessarily disagree. However, on the flip side, what if you went through a messy divorce 10 years ago?

Imagine that it went to trial.  At trial, details emerged that remain embarrassing today.  Yes, the trial was public, but, really, in label only. Nobody went, certainly not the press.  The details are not, by any stretch of the imagination, generally known. The only way anyone could access the details would be by going to the great length of ordering a transcript.  Public? Yes.  Generally known? No.

How would you feel if your lawyer blogged the details tomorrow?

In any event, from a practical standpoint, in law & life, I think it’s often best to heed the words of Thomas Edison:

“You will have many opportunities
to keep your mouth shut.
You should take advantage
of every one of them.”


Be Quiet

4 thoughts on “ABA & Client Confidences: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again.

  1. Having hired lots of lawyers over the last 20+ years, of course I wouldn’t want them blabbing about my matters without my consent.

    But there’s a difference between a best practice and what the law can prohibit. I’m quite sure that Rule 1.6 can’t constitutionally be applied to discipline a lawyer for stating something that is in the public record.


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