Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Client Confidentiality Basics

Lawyers Mutual Liability InsuranceLoose lips sink ships – and can lead to ethical and malpractice problems.

The law office is an exciting place. Staff members are privy to information others don’t have. Office personnel learn the inside scoop on headline stories. They discover interesting things about prominent people.

At its most basic level, preserving confidentiality means resisting the quite-human urge to share all of this tasty information with others, especially friends and family. But the notion of confidentiality goes much farther than that.

Rule 1.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct governs client confidentiality:

“(a) ‘Confidential information’ refers to information protected by the attorney-client privilege under applicable law, and other information gained in the professional relationship that the client has requested be held inviolate or the disclosure of which would be embarrassing or would likely be detrimental to the client. For the purposes of this rule, ‘client’ refers to present and former clients.”

Note several important aspects to the Rule. First, the concept of confidentiality is broader than that of attorney-client privilege. Second, you must not disclose anything the client instructs you to keep confidential. Third, anything that would be embarrassing or harmful to the best interests of the client must be kept confidential. Fourth, both former and present clients are owed this duty.

Following are some other important confidentiality tips:

  • What happens in the office stays in the office. Don’t discuss business outside the confines of the law office.
  • Never discuss one client’s business with another client, or while another client might be in listening range.
  • Beware water cooler conversations. Can your chatter be overheard in the lobby?
  • Keep case files segregated. Remember that your duty of confidentiality continues even after the case is closed. It also continues after you leave the firm.
  • Be wary when clients or outsiders want to use your office for any reason, such as to make copies or to use the telephone. Make sure no client files or documents are lying around.
  • Never release information to callers such as the name of a client’s accountant, doctor or insurance adjuster without authorization.
  • Be careful when disposing of confidential papers, including rough drafts or duplicates. Use shredders, a professional document destruction service, or some other secure method for sensitive information.
  • Never forget that the attorney-client relationship is built on mutual trust and confidence. Clients come to you expecting privacy and safety. Give them that.
  • Don’t take phone calls when a client is in your office. Give the client your undivided attention. The ban on phone calls is especially important if the call concerns another client’s case. The client might feel that you will discuss his or her case on the phone while other clients are listening as well.
  • Don’t leave client files out on your desk for other clients to see. This goes for staff members as well. Treat each case carefully.

For more information, visit our Risk Management Resources.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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