Last week I attended a brown-bag lunch meeting conducted by the Baltimore City Bar Association entitled “Ethical Considerations for Social Networking for Lawyers.” (Yes, you cynics – we do have ethics – most of us do at least.)
As the crowd gathered in the bar library, I was somewhat fascinated by the demographics of the group attending. Many of the attendees were from my generation and beyond. No, I’m not going to make it easy, you can click on the ‘About Brian Nash‘ link on our blog page and figure out my age. Let’s put it this way – I’m not just out of law school.
Initially I was impressed that the older folks even knew what ‘social media’ meant. Well, it turns out many of them have a different definition than we Tweeps, Friends and Followers. Guess they thought it had to do with advertising in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. (Boy, I hope they’re not reading this! – chances are they are not since it would require a computer.)
Let’s get down to the subject at hand. One of the topics that surfaced during the discussion was the issue of whether or not a client could be found to have waived the attorney-client privilege by communicating with their friends, followers and/or connections on social media networks. Further time was devoted to how ‘those-in-the-know’ have been dealing with this potential nightmarish issue. I want to share some of the group’s thoughts and some of my own on further reflection. My hope is that these ‘tips, tricks and warnings’ will prove to be of some help – not only the public as clients but to my fellow lawyers, who may not have considered these issues before.
The Attorney-Client Privilege:
Let me start by giving the requisite disclaimer: No, you are not my client because we are Friends on Facebook or following each other on Twitter or you are reading this blog. No, this is not legal advice. That’s the short version.
What is this privilege? I could quote Black’s Law Dictionary, but in the spirit of the internet, here’s what version 1.0 and 2.0 of the cyberspace’s bible (read: Wikipedia) has to say:
The attorney-client privilege is one of the oldest recognized privileges for confidential communications. The United States Supreme Court has stated that, by assuring confidentiality, the privilege encourages clients to make “full and frank” disclosures to their attorneys, who are then better able to provide candid advice and effective representation.
So how could a tweet, a posting or a comment potentially waive such a sacred and revered protection?
While what constitutes a waiver can at times vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and certainly from one fact pattern to another, there are some common principles of law that seem to apply.
- the disclosure must be voluntary and inconsistent with the confidential nature of the attorney-client relationship.
- the disclosure of the communication with one’s attorney by a client has been made to “unnecessary third parties.”
While law libraries are filled with cases interpreting and ruling on issues of waiver of the privilege, these two elements (intentional disclosure to an unnecessary third party) are sufficient to frame the issue for our discussion.
Does voluntary mean ‘intentional’ – or put another way: “Geez, I didn’t mean to do that.” The short answer (albeit being overly simplistic) is “no, not necessarily.” One of the central issues is – was the disclosure voluntary. Some courts and legal writers suggest that if the disclosure is “inadvertent” (therefore, not voluntary) that this is not a waiver of the privilege. Well, as with most things in the law, there is a laundry list of factors that can be considered to determine if a defense of inadvertent will withstand a challenge to waiver. Some of these might be as follows:
- the reasonableness (a favorite legal word that can mean anything to anyone) of the precautions taken to prevent inadvertent disclosure
- the number of inadvertent disclosures
- the extent of disclosure
- the delay and measures taken to rectify the disclosure
Well what if you didn’t intend it – or so you say? First of all, I’m not quite sure I want to be standing in front of a judge arguing that when you broadcast a communication you had with your lawyer on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other networking site you live on, you really didn’t intend to type what you typed and then hit ‘enter.’
Can there also be an implied waiver? – another meaningful legal term that keeps all of us lawyers in business. Without getting into a dissertation (more the subject of a law review article) on what constitutes an implied waiver, suffice it to say that this can occur when the client places the communication with their lawyer which goes to the heart of the controversy.
Intent (just like reasonable) generally speaking is one of those fuzzy terms that breeds litigation. For purposes of this article, let’s just focus on whether you intended to put this disclosure out there for your friends and followers. Was the topic you were communicating to your friends/followers (i.e. more than likely defined as “unnecessary third parties”) a confidential communication you had with your lawyer or maybe with your lawyer’s staff?
If it meets these two tests, you will have a difficult if not impossible hurdle to overcome in defending a claim by the opposing lawyer that you waived the attorney-client privilege.
You have now been warned – don’t do it! I know the devil made your fingers fly over the keyboard when you told your 482 friends about what your lawyer just told you – about how your case is progressing, or key information your lawyer just discovered, or even your lawyer’s brilliant strategy for getting you a top dollar settlement in your case. The “devil defense” is probably not going to work.
The same goes for lawyers. First of all, the privilege is not the lawyer’s; it belongs in modern jurisprudence to the client. I fully realize that you are just dying to share with your network of legal eagles your most recent brilliant strategy that even Clarence Darrow would never have thought of; however, if you reveal the strategy of a client’s case on such a public forum and it is discovered, you can probably expect a letter from your local attorney grievance commission.
While there are a host of related issues that I will be writing about in the future (e.g. tips and tricks for lawyers during the intake process to identify social media platforms your clients are frequenting, notifications in your fee agreements, and the like), I leave you with one final piece of advice (free at that!!): DON’T DO IT! Keep your communications with your lawyer (clients) off the public social media platforms.
I’m sure you are confident that your user name is so ingenious – LegalBoy528AZ or imgonnaberichsoon – that you will never get caught. You type away figuring that you’re smarter than any dumb opposing lawyer. Trust me – you don’t want to make that assumption. In fact, in a future blog, I’ll discuss court rulings on this topic of discovery of social media data that may surprise you - and not in a good way.
To borrow a catchphrase from the TV show Hill Street Blues – “Let’s be safe out there!” I might also add – “Let’s be smart our there!”