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Bell/Gaerte: 3 things to know about confidentiality

James J. Bell , K. Michael Gaerte
December 18, 2013
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Bell Gaerte 3 thingsOver the past several years, attorneys and their staff have gained access to the world of social media. Through social media, those who work in the legal profession are able to communicate quickly and easily to a large audience. However, easy access to social media should be accompanied by ethical caution. While social media has not mandated the creation of new ethical guidelines, it does make it easier to commit an ethical foul. Of course, one of the easiest ways for lawyers and their staff to violate the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct is by revealing too much information in social media.

With that, here are three things to know about confidentiality:

1. The duty of confidentiality is broad.

While some lawyers may equate the duty of confidentiality with the attorney-client privilege, the duty of confidentiality goes far beyond privileged communications with a client. In fact, arguably, the rule covers anything that pertains to a client’s case. Rule 1.6 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct states that “[a] lawyer shall not reveal information relating to representation of a client” and the Supreme Court of Indiana has noted that the confidentiality “protection provided is broad.” Matter of Anonymous, 932 N.E.2d 671, 674 (Ind. 2010). The “confidentiality rule, for example, applies not only to matters communicated in confidence by the client but also to all information relating to the representation, whatever its source.” Ind. Prof. Cond. R. 1.6, cmt. [3].

In the Matter of Anonymous, an attorney argued to the Supreme Court that she had not revealed confidential information due to the fact that the prospective client had disclosed the same information in question to her co-workers. However, the Supreme Court disagreed and stated that “the fact that a client may choose to confide to others information relating to a representation does not waive or negate confidentiality protections of the Rules.” Anonymous, 932 N.E. 2d at 674.

In addition, the attorney attempted to argue that she had not revealed confidential information because that information could be discovered through a search of public records. The court again disagreed and concluded that “the Rules contain no exception allowing revelation of information relating to a representation even if a diligent researcher could unearth it through public sources.” Id.

2. With regard to confidentiality, prospective clients are clients.

For purposes of confidentiality, an attorney should treat prospective clients the same as the attorney would treat plain old clients. “Even when no client-lawyer relationship ensues, a lawyer who has had discussions with a prospective client shall not use or reveal information learned in the consultation.” Prof. Cond. R. 1.18(b).

This raises a question as to who is a “prospective client?” Rule 1.18 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct states that a “person who discusses with a lawyer the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client.” However, “a person who communicates information unilaterally to a lawyer, without any reasonable expectation that the lawyer is willing to discuss the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship, is not a ‘prospective client’ within the meaning of paragraph (a).” Prof. Cond. R. 1.18, cmt. [2].

Therefore, when an individual wishes to discuss the possible formation of a client-lawyer relationship, that person is a prospective client and is entitled to these discussions being kept confidential. With regard to firm websites, if clients are first communicating with you by clicking on your email address from your webpage, you should consider having appropriate disclaimers in place to dissuade those prospective clients from sharing confidential information with you until you believe an attorney-client relationship is a possibility. This practice could also help avoid issues with conflicts of interest.

3. Train staff regarding confidentiality.

Finally, we need to educate those who we supervise regarding the breadth of confidentiality. For example, Rule 5.3(a) of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct states that lawyers with managerial authority “shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that [a non-lawyer assistant’s] conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer.” A similar rule exists for lawyers who we supervise.

If a co-worker tweets, blogs or otherwise reveals information related to a case, that person’s supervisor may not have violated Rule 1.6, but may have violated the rules pertaining to supervision. Therefore, you may want to consider starting off next year with a quick, but well-documented, meeting with your staff to discuss the duty of confidentiality and other ethical obligations of the firm.•

__________

James J. Bell and K. Michael Gaerte are attorneys with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. They assist lawyers and judges with professional liability and legal ethics issues. They also practice in criminal defense and are regular speakers on criminal defense and ethics topics. They can be reached at jbell@bgdlegal.com or mgaerte@bgdlegal.com. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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