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What Is Attorney Client Privilege?

When an individual hires a Raleigh criminal lawyer for legal representation, the attorney needs to know all of the facts of the client’s situation to provide effective representation. The concept of attorney-client privilege helps establish trust and open communication between attorneys and their clients. Under attorney-client privilege, attorneys may not divulge any of a client’s secrets or share correspondence with the client with any other parties without the client’s consent. The logic behind this type of protection is to encourage clients to be as truthful as possible with their attorneys.

How and When Does Attorney-Client Privilege Apply?

It’s important for any potential clients to know when attorney-client privilege actually applies, what it covers, and possible exceptions in a particular case. Attorney-client privilege applies when a client or potential client shares any information about a legal matter with the attorney. Generally, a potential client will have a case evaluation or consultation with an attorney to decide whether to hire the attorney for representation in a case. Once the attorney agrees to represent the client, the client must sign a contract agreeing to the lawyer’s services.

Under attorney-client privilege, a client has the right to expect a reasonable degree of confidentiality when it comes to oral or written communications with his or her attorney. The lawyer may not share any confidential correspondence outside of the legal team handling the client’s case. It is also important to remember that a client can waive attorney-client privilege as he or she sees fit, but an attorney cannot.

Clients should also remember when the expectation of secrecy and confidentiality can apply. If the client shares information with his or her attorney in private, there is an expectation that the conversation falls under attorney-client privilege. However, if the attorney and client meet in public and discuss aspects of a confidential legal matter, there is nothing stopping a person who overhears the conversation from testifying about it later and reporting what he or she overheard.

Attorney-Client Privilege vs. Duty of Confidentiality

Some people mistakenly conflate attorney-client privilege with attorneys’ duty of confidentiality for their clients. While attorney-client privilege prevents an attorney from discussing aspects of a client’s case with parties outside the client’s legal team, the duty of confidentiality is a more expansive legal concept. An attorney’s duty of confidentiality prohibits an attorney from sharing any confidential information about a client at any time, even outside of the courtroom.

The duty of confidentiality even extends after a case concludes. An attorney may not divulge any confidential information pertaining to a client from any source, even after the client has died.

Possible Exceptions

There are very few scenarios in which an attorney can legally and ethically breach attorney-client privilege. One of the most common reasons for doing so would be to prevent the client from harming others. For example, if a client tells his or her attorney in confidence that he or she committed a murder, the attorney may not disclose this information under attorney-client privilege. However, if the client tells the attorney he or she intends to harm or kill a witness in the case, the attorney has a duty to disclose this information to the authorities to prevent harm.

Lawyers are officers of the court and must, therefore, comply with court orders. If a judge has reasonable grounds to request confidential information, the attorney must comply with the court order. State laws may come into play as well. For example, in some states, an attorney must correct the record if he or she knows that a client lied. However, the attorney may also suggest the client invoke his or her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

Good attorneys treat attorney-client privilege as sacred and would never breach this trust-based contract without justification. Breaching attorney-client privilege can not only damage an attorney’s reputation but also lead to legal and professional penalties, possibly even disbarment.