In 2014, approximately 778,700 attorneys practiced law in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). When you find and hire an experienced, trustworthy lawyer with whom you have a good rapport, you enter into an agreement under which the attorney must maintain a certain level of confidentiality. If you’re going to use a lawyer, it’s important to understand attorney–client privilege, how it works, and what exceptions exist.

Attorney–Client Privilege Defined

Trust is an important foundation for any relationship, but especially one of a professional nature. Historically, attorney–client privilege originated in Elizabethan England as a way to protect lawyers from being ordered to testify against their own clients. However, attorney–client privilege now exists so the client feels safe enough with her attorney to disclose all pertinent information—any lawyer needs all relevant information to build a strong case. The following are all important pieces in forming a definition of attorney–client privilege:

  • An individual or group seeks legal advice from a professional attorney
  • Information exchanged between that person and the attorney is confidential
  • Confidentiality exists permanently, unless the privilege is waived

Attorney–client protections provide that a lawyer can’t be made to testify against his client, and the client can’t be made to disclose information relayed during meetings with the attorney. To better understand attorney–client privilege, it’s helpful to know under what circumstances it applies. Attorney–client privilege:

  • Goes into effect when both parties agree to representation. A person must agree to hire the lawyer, and the lawyer must agree to represent that person after understanding the legal issue at hand.
  • Protects confidential oral, written, and electronic communications. Intentional confidentiality is key here. When a client sends an email, makes a call, or writes a note, that communication must be intended for the attorney only and not available for public knowledge.
  • Safeguards communication about past actions. If a client reveals that she committed a serious crime in the past, such as embezzlement or murder, the lawyer is bound to keep that information confidential.
  • Does not expire. Even after the completion of a case, and when the attorney–client relationship ends, a lawyer must maintain confidentiality on his client’s information and case.

Attorney–Client Privilege Doesn’t Cover Everything

Although attorney–client privilege is intended to protect both lawyers and their clients, it’s important to remember that lawyers have a duty to uphold the law. For this reason, a lawyer may have a legal obligation to advise her client of legal consequences and then report information in some cases. The following are instances in which attorney–client privilege does not protect information relayed in confidential communications:

  • A client intends to commit a crime
  • A client commits fraud or deception concerning information related to the case
  • A client has information concerning the misconduct of another attorney
  • A client decidedly waives attorney–client privilege for an individual or in trial
  • A lawyer specifically states that he does not represent the person claiming privilege

However, Virginia law also provides that a lawyer may also share information to:

  • Comply with a court order
  • Establish a defense for her client
  • Protect a client’s interests in the event the lawyer dies or becomes incapacitated
  • Participate in a Virginia State Bar-approved office management system or program
  • Keep records, bookkeeping, accounting, data processing, or statistics up to date
  • Protect her own interests, in the event a client sues for malpractice
  • Protect her own interests, in the event an attorney faces other criminal charges

We’re Here If You Need Legal Advice

Finding the right lawyer can be a challenging task; however, it’s important you hire one who upholds the law, fully abides by the rules of attorney–client privilege, and offers sound legal advice. The trusted team at Kearney, Freeman, Fogarty & Joshi works diligently to help our clients build successful cases. If you have questions about a legal matter and need to speak with someone right away, start a live online chat with us today.