Client alleges you did wrong? Still, don’t talk too much.

When it comes to client confidences, I think lawyers would be well served to remember lessons imparted by Run-DMC: it’s not tricky, don’t talk too much.

Information relating to the representation of a client, no matter the source, is confidential.  Per Rule 1.6, such information can only be disclosed if:

  • the client gives informed consent to the disclosure;
  • disclosure is impliedly authorized to carry out the representation;
  • disclosure is required by Rule 1.6(b); or,
  • disclosure is permitted by Rule 1.6(c).

Today, I want to look at one of the instances in which paragraph (c) permits disclosure of otherwise confidential information.  I’m going to refer to (1) an ineffective assistance of counsel claim made by a criminal defendant against a defense attorney; and, (2) an ABA advisory opinion on the extent to which Rule 1.6 applies to claims of ineffective assistance.

Don’t tune out simply because you don’t do criminal defense.  There’s a larger point: the mere fact that the client alleges that you did something wrong does not give you license to disclose anything and everything that the client ever shared with you.

Rule 1.6(c)(3) permits (but does not require) a lawyer to reveal information relating to the representation if the lawyer reasonably believes that disclosure is necessary:

  • to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client;
  • to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved; or,
  • to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client.

Per Comment [14], if a lawyer reasonably believes that (c)(3) permits disclosure, disclosure is nonetheless limited to “the extent the lawyer reasonably believes the disclosure is necessary to accomplish one of the purposes specified.”  It continues:

  • “[D]isclosure adverse to the client’s interest should be no greater than the lawyer reasonably believes necessary to accomplish the purpose.  If the disclosure is made in connection with a judicial proceeding, the disclosure should be made in a manner that limits access to the information to the tribunal or other persons having a need to know it and appropriate protective orders or other arrangements should be sought by the lawyer to the fullest extent practicable.”

In simple terms, do what you advise your clients to do in depositions and on the witness stand: listen to the question and answer only the question.   Actually, a federal magistrate recently stated it far more succinctly.

Yesterday, I came across this post in the ABA Journal.  The opening paragraph:

  • “A federal magistrate judge has ordered a West Virginia lawyer accused of ineffective assistance of counsel to respond to his one-time client’s allegations in a way that limits disclosure of confidential information.”

The magistrate’s opinion is here.  The analysis includes reference to Rule 1.6 and ABA Formal Opinion 10-456.  The magistrate’s succinct conclusion:

  • “Simply put, the filing of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim does not operate as an unfettered waiver of all privileged communications.”

I’ll stop there otherwise I risk sudden onset of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Suffice to say, even when a client puts your representation into issue, don’t talk too much.

After all, who wants to be this guy? (80’s lyrics are the best!)

“Everywhere that you go, no matter where you at
I said you talk about this, and you talk about that
When the cat took your tongue, I say you took it right back
Your mouth is so big, one bite would kill a Big Mac.”

~ Run-DMC, “You Talk Too Much,” King of Rock, Track 3, 1985.

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