Lawyer Reveals Prospective Client’s Communications—How did Disciplinary Board React?

If a lawyer meets with a prospective client but decides—for conflict-of-interest purposes—that he cannot proceed with the representation, do the attorney–client privilege and ethical rules of confidentiality prohibit the lawyer from revealing the prospective client’s communications?  A Nevada lawyer discovered the answer the hard way.  In the Matter of Discipline of Mark A. Beguelin, Bar No. 3675, 2018 WL 2272918 (Nev. May 11, 2018), available here.

The Rule

Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.18 provides that, except in a narrow circumstance, a lawyer may not reveal information learned from a prospective client, “[e]ven when no client–lawyer relationship ensues.”  The Rule’s comments provide that a person becomes a “prospective client” “by consulting with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client–lawyer relationship.”  And when that consultation occurs, the Rule imposes a confidentiality requirement on the lawyer, “regardless of how brief the initial conference may be.”

The Privilege

Most jurisdictions similarly hold that the attorney–client privilege protects from disclosure confidential communications between a lawyer and a prospective client.  In his excellent treatise, Testimonial Privileges, privilege guru David Greenwald clearly recounts that the privilege applies to “prospective clients.” David Greenwald, et al., Testimonial Privileges, § 1.23 (3d ed.). The Nevada Supreme Court, in fact, has held that the privilege protects the substance of a lawyer’s consultation with a prospective client.  Pohl v. Ninth Judicial Dist. Court, 2016 WL 383086 (Nev. Jan. 28, 2016), available here.

The Consultation

The Pohl decision makes what one Nevada lawyer did a bit puzzling.  A prospective client met with the lawyer about filing a divorce action and revealed to him that her husband was verbally abusive. More…

Sex, Privilege, and Audiotapes (Updated)

Privilege, sex, criminal investigations, and hyperbole.  Of course, I am referring to another eventful 48 hours in the continuing Trump–Cohen privilege-review saga.  The latest installment is lawyer Michael Cohen’s secret 2016 recording of his conversation with President Trump regarding Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model who alleges a year-long affair with Trump in 2006.

Let’s break down this latest twist, for it offers many lessons.

What We Know—The Special Master’s Review

SDNY’s Judge Kimba Wood appointed Barbara Jones as Special Master to conduct a privilege review of materials the federal government obtained in a raid on Cohen’s Trump Tower office.  SM Jones filed her latest review report, available here, on July 13, 2018, and her Second Report and Recommendations, available here, on Thursday, July 19, 2018.

The SM released 883,634 non-privileged items to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.  Was the Trump–Cohen audiotape part of that release? We do not know.

Cohen and/or Trump claimed privilege over 4,085 items, and the SM agreed that the privilege covered 2,633 of them.  Was the audiotape among the 2,633? We do not know.

Of the remaining 1,452 that the SM found non-privileged, Cohen (not Trump) objected to the non-privilege designation on 22 of them, but advised the SM that he “will not raise these objections with the Court.”  Was the audiotape one of these 22? We do not know—the SM’s report is silent on these privileged and non-privileged items’ substance.

Leaked Recording

On Friday, July 20, 2018, the New York Times reported the tape’s existence, stating that the FBI seized the recording during the April 9, 2018 raid.  With no mention of the audiotape in public court filings, who leaked the recording’s existence to the Times?

Unless the tape was part of the 880,000+ non-privileged items released to the government, it is doubtful that government lawyers even have the tape to leak it.  If the tape truly contains a confidential, privileged conversation (see below), then why would Cohen and his attorneys risk an ethical violation by leaking confidential information?

The New Yorker and other media outlets suggest that Trump’s lawyers informed the Times, a reasonable conclusion.

Is the Recording Privileged?

Recall that the privilege applies to (1) communications between (2) a lawyer and her client that are (3) confidential when made, (4) kept confidential thereafter, and (5) pertain to legal advice.  We knew that any Trump–Cohen communications would face scrutiny in SM Jones’ privilege review, as I chronicled in Privilege Issues Confronting the Trump–Cohen Special Master.

Let’s analyze. More…

Sharing Protected Information with Potential Litigation Funders

Parties seeking financing to fund their litigation efforts must, of course, share information with the potential funder so that it can make an informed investment decision.  The attorney-client privilege or the work-product doctrine protects some of this information, such as a lawyer’s analysis of potential claims.

Parties adverse to the funded party now routinely seek this shared information in discovery, arguing that the party waived any privilege or work-product protections by sharing protected information with the litigation-financing company.  Many issues arise, such as the different waiver standards for the attorney-client privilege and the work-product doctrine, and whether the common-interest doctrine offers non-waiver protection.

In an article published in the Spring 2018 issue of Today’s General Counsel, I explore these issues.  You may read the article here.