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The Information You Reveal to Your Lawyer Is Protected by Attorney-Client Privilege… But What Does That Really Mean?

The Information You Reveal to Your Lawyer Is Protected by Attorney-Client Privilege… But What Does That Really Mean?

You may not imagine that priests and lawyers have much in common. But there is one thing linking those two professions: the concept of privilege. This basically means that conversations you have with your priest in the sanctum of the confessional… and confidential information you reveal about your case to your lawyer in the privacy of their office… are both considered legally protected speech. They’re sometimes known as “privileged conversations” and neither your lawyer, nor your priest, can be compelled to reveal the deep, dark secrets you’ve shared with them to anyone in law enforcement or otherwise. (Usually there are minor exceptions, of course, which we’ll get to momentarily).

Since we’re a law firm, and you’re presumably reading this to learn more about attorney-client privilege, let’s get back to that topic by answering a few frequently asked questions about this long-established cornerstone of jurisprudence.

So, What Exactly Is Attorney-Client Privilege… and When Does It Actually Begin?

As Cornell University’s law school points out, attorney-client privilege allows lawyers and their clients to freely discuss anything regarding the client’s legal situation without fear of it being made public or being used against the client in court. It may help to include a key part of the term’s definition from the highly respected Black’s Law Dictionary here: “The attorney client privilege secures the client from potential sensitive information being disclosed to other people. The law requires that an attorney does not reveal any communications or letters between him/her and his/her client to any third party, which includes business associates, competitors, government agencies and even criminal justice authorities.”

Furthermore, as a recent article published by MarketWatch mentions, it’s important to know that attorney-client privilege takes effect the moment you contact an attorney to discuss your case – even if you’re in an initial exploratory meeting where no funds have been exchanged or you haven’t yet officially asked the attorney to work on your behalf.

Are There Exceptions to Attorney-Client Privilege?

There are just a few. For instance, if you tell your lawyer that you’re planning to commit a crime, your lawyer is not bound to keep that a secret. If they did, they could likely be accused of conspiracy! And if you’re conversing with your lawyer in the presence of another person – even if you’re seated at a secluded booth in a remote corner of a restaurant where you think you can’t be heard by other folks dining nearby – the presumption of having a privileged conversation pretty much goes out the window. The old saying “the walls have ears” comes into play here. And so does another one you might remember: “Loose lips sink ships.” So, find a private place to talk with your attorney to be sure your confidentiality is protected. Their office is a good place for this purpose. Additionally, even if the third person in the room is a family member, their presence alone could destroy attorney-client privilege.

Same thing if you and your attorney are having an email or text-message conversation and you decide to copy someone else in on the conversation. Any time you include another non-privileged individual in the discussion, you’ve effectively given up your right to attorney-client privilege. However, any employee of a law firm, even if they are not an attorney, is protected by the attorney-client privilege umbrella. So, if you are talking to anyone on your attorney’s team, you are still protected by privilege even if they are not an attorney.

Is Attorney-Client Privilege Different in a Personal Injury Case Than in a Criminal Case?

Nope. The same rules and legal precedents apply to any attorney-client conversation. You’re just as safe discussing confidential information with your lawyer whether you’re a hardened criminal talking with a defense attorney or an innocent accident victim seeking help from a friendly personal injury lawyer.

What Types of Communications are Protected?

Just about any forms of verbal and written communication are covered. For example, that includes in-person conversations which take place between you and your attorney, emails you and your attorney directly exchange, and any text messages you send to your attorney. But remember that messages sent by electronic means are probably stored in a database somewhere, and determined hackers can probably uncover just about anything! Likewise, old-fashioned snail mail letters, telephone calls, and even remote video conferences conducted using such technology as FaceTime and Zoom can be considered privileged communications.

Is Privilege Governed by State or Federal Law?

Both. However, since most personal injury cases involve plaintiffs and defendants who live in the same state, the vast majority of our cases are adjudicated in state courts. Michigan’s courts have published a 106-page handbook titled “Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct” which discusses attorney-client privilege and spells out how lawyers should interact with clients, employees, and other court officials (along with setting forth some important additional guidelines). It says, among other things, “The client-lawyer privilege is that of the client and not of the lawyer,” which means you as a client can ask your attorney to keep a secret or, conversely, you can permit your lawyer to reveal it. Specifically, the Michigan rules also state that your lawyer isn’t permitted to “(1) reveal a confidence or secret of a client; (2) use a confidence or secret of a client to the disadvantage of the client; or (3) use a confidence or secret of a client for the advantage of the lawyer or of a third person, unless the client consents after full disclosure.”

What Happens if a Lawyer Breaks Attorney-Client Privilege?

Good question – and one we don’t even want to think about, since it would mean that the attorney who breaks privilege could at the very least be professionally (and publicly) reprimanded and at worst be disbarred and prevented from practicing law in the future. Basically, attorney-client privilege is one of the most highly cherished protections of our legal system, and a lawyer who breaches it would become a pariah among their peers.

We’ll Feel Privileged if You Give Us a Call About Your Case

We’d like to conclude this article by firmly promising that we do our utmost to represent our clients, working as professional and ethical attorneys who abide by the spirit and letter of the law, especially as it relates to attorney-client privilege. You can depend upon us to have your back – and to stand beside you in court as your trusted advocate – if you’re ever injured through the fault of someone else whether it be in an auto accident, a work-related incident, or any other cause. Give us a call at 855-MIKE-WINS (855-645-3946). We’ll be there for you day or night.