Legal Topics

Is What You Tell Your Lawyer Confidential?

What is Attorney-Client Privilege?

One of the first questions asked by new clients when they meet with an attorney is whether the information they give to the attorney will remain confidential. In order to provide the most accurate legal advice, an attorney must know all of the details of your case, which may include very personal information. Pennsylvania law protects communications between attorneys and clients in two ways.

 

Confidentiality

All attorneys in Pennsylvania must adhere to the Rules of Professional Conduct, a set of regulations governing all aspects of their practice. Confidentiality is one of the most important rules and taken very seriously. Generally speaking, attorneys may not disclose any information about their clients, except in a very limited set of circumstances. For example, a  client may consent to disclosure of certain information in order to facilitate contract or settlement negotiations, or may consent to the disclosure of limited information, such as the existence or location of a will after the client’s death.

An attorney may not disclose information relating to a client’s past criminal behavior, but may disclose to the police a client’s intent to commit a crime.

Attorney confidentiality applies to all forms of communication, and to information stored by an attorney in his office or computer databases. When a client give his attorney documents containing personal information, for example, the attorney is required to keep those documents in a secure location and to take precautions to safeguard them from theft or unwanted viewing.

Most attorneys use secure email servers, and/or request that sensitive information not be communicated through email.

The rules of confidentiality apply  not only to your attorney, but to everyone who works for him, even after their employment ends.

 

Privilege

Pennsylvania laws regarding confidentiality not only prevent attorneys from divulging your information; they also protect attorney/client communications from discovery by other parties in legal actions. For example, if a client confesses to his attorney that he is guilty  of a crime, the attorney may not be required to reveal the client’s name or the contents of any communication to the police or prosecutor. Similarly,  an opposing party may not access any communications between an attorney and a client in any civil action.  This includes communications from a client to his attorney or anyone on his staff and  to communications from the attorney or anyone on his staff  to the client.

 

Who is Covered By Confidentiality Rules?

Attorney-client confidentiality applies whenever a person talks to an attorney for the purpose of asking professional legal advice, during the course of the professional relationship, and even after the professional relationship has ended. Therefore, if a potential client consults with an attorney about a matter and does not end up hiring the attorney, any communications are still covered by confidentiality rules and attorney-client privilege.  Although  no payment or formal contract is required in order for an attorney-client relationship to exist for purposes of confidentiality, the rules do not generally apply to casual conversations outside of the office, as at a social gathering. Attorneys in such situations usually treat those conversations as confidential, but attorney-client privilege may not apply unless there is some indication that the communication is intended for the purpose of seeking professional legal advice.