LawProse Lesson #192: Client confidences.
Ethical communications for lawyers: Client confidences. Trustworthy. That’s how every client should describe you. Keep all client confidences—and make it a habit to keep all confidences in everyday life. The law doesn’t make an exception for spouses or friends, so don’t talk to them about your client’s confidential matters. No matter what. Your clients entrust their affairs to you, and it is often difficult or undesirable for them to supervise you. Because you deal with matters most confidential and vital to your clients, they expect you to keep their confidences. Consider a case from Washington. A lawyer represented an elderly woman who felt controlled by her son and wanted to control her own property. The lawyer drew up a new estate plan but involved the son. Questioning whether the lawyer represented her or her son, the client eventually hired another attorney. Both the son and the lawyer then filed an unsuccessful petition to declare his ex-client incompetent. Although the lawyer claimed that he had not disclosed any confidential information, the court found that he had (1) disclosed personal information that he could have gotten from his client only while acting as her lawyer, and (2) done so to the son knowingly and intentionally and in direct contravention of the client’s express objective to be free of her son’s control. In the end, the lawyer’s improper disclosures cost his ex-client $13,500 and, worse, her relationship with her son. The court ordered him to make financial restitution and suspended him for 18 months. In re Eugster, 209 P.3d 435 (Wash. 2009). Although almost everything a client tells you in a professional capacity is to be considered confidential, the lines are fuzzier in everyday life. One problem with everyday confidences is knowing what is and is not to be considered confidential. If you’re told it’s a secret, of course, that’s easy. Otherwise, use your reason and common sense, depending on the nature of the subject and the relationships of the people involved, to decide whether you should relate something you’ve been told. In general, though, you should always be hesitant to divulge information that might prove embarrassing or harmful to the person who shared it with you—especially if that person had reason to believe that he or she was entrusting you with it. When in doubt, mum’s the word.