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Your Lawyer: A User's Guide

by Lawrence J. Fox and Susan R. Martyn
The lawyer-client relationship is built on trust. Clients must have confidence that their lawyers are in their corner. One aspect of the lawyer rules designed to accomplish this result is what we refer to as the duty of confidentiality. This duty requires the lawyer to keep her lips sealed.

Sealed about what?

In most states a lawyer must keep silent as to all information learned in the course of your representation. This means the lawyer is not free to go to a cocktail party and brag that you are her latest client. It also means a lawyer cannot tell a reporter, a judge or the lawyer on the other side information the lawyer learned in the course of a representation, even if that information could be found by "looking it up" on the internet or down at the local library or courthouse. We say that if the information has not appeared on Action News or in a headline in the Post Gazette then the lawyer must keep quiet about it.

What is the reason for this rule?

Your lawyer must know the truth - the whole truth - in order to represent you effectively. Sometimes clients are simply reluctant to share their private matters with strangers. Sometimes clients are embarrassed to share the truth. They are ashamed - often needlessly - of what they have done. Sometimes clients think that if they tell their lawyer all of the facts the lawyer will lose enthusiasm for their cause. So, unfortunately, they substitute what they think the lawyer wants to hear for their obligation to tell all.

Not only do lawyers need the whole truth to represent you effectively, but we also know from painful experience that undisclosed facts will come out one way or another. If the truth is known early - and does not make an ill-timed entrance onto the stage - it is much easier to confront head-on and develop a strategy for dealing with it at leisure.

One way to help overcome clients' reluctance to share all facts of their case is for lawyers to look clients in the eye and assure them that the information they are sharing with their lawyer will stay between them and go beyond the privacy of the lawyer-client relationship only with their prior approval. The sanctity of the lawyer-client relationship, we say, is far more important to society than any benefit that would accrue if lawyers did not make this vow of silence to you.

I know you lawyers; every rule has exceptions, and it seems like you're always talking about some client's case. What are the exceptions here?

Of course, lawyers cannot accomplish anything for clients unless they speak. This reality explains the first exception, which we think you will agree with: Your lawyer can disclose if you consent.

Chapter 7: Your Lawyer Must Be Loyal »