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How Does Client Confidentiality Work With Attorneys and Their Clients?


Published in confidentiality on June 13, 2016.

The confidentiality agreement between attorneys and their clients is the oldest privilege recognized by the American jurisprudence, traceable back to the Roman Republic. In a nutshell, attorney-client privilege ensures people who seek advice or help from an attorney are completely free of the fear that their private information or secrets will be revealed.

Confidentiality agreements are also known as secrecy or nondisclosure agreements. Two parties can enter a contracted confidentiality agreement by choice at any time, but in the event of an attorney-client relationship, this agreement is immediately assumed. The fundamental principle of this relationship is that in the absence of a client’s consent, an attorney cannot reveal information relating to the case. Breaching this pact leads to immense disciplinary action – usually disbarment.

Attorney-Client Privilege vs. Lawyer Confidentiality

While these terms are often used interchangeably, there’s a significant difference you must be aware of before divulging any sensitive information.

The attorney-client privilege (also known as the testimonial privilege) only protects communications actually had by the client and attorney, and it only extends to information directly related to obtaining legal representation. Underlying information in these situations is automatically not protected if the same information is available from another source. Therefore, if you divulge information to your attorney that someone else already knows, it doesn’t grant you a “cloak” of protection just because you’ve told your lawyer.

Client-lawyer confidentiality, on the other hand, is an ethical duty lawyers are bound to abide by in speaking with their clients. The terms of what is protected under lawyer confidentiality is extensive, and it applies to all information relating to representation, regardless of the source. Every lawyer accepts this duty of complete confidentiality with clients the minute a conversation is initiated.

Can My Attorney Break Our Confidentiality Agreement?

One frequently asked question among clientele during high profile or high stakes lawsuits is whether or not the lawyer is allowed to break the confidentiality agreement on any terms. While other professionals, such as healthcare workers, are legally obligated to notify the authorities if you mention being abused, raped, or other personal matters, lawyers can never break a confidentiality agreement without facing serious consequences.

When speaking with a lawyer, there’s no need to sign a physical contract or shake hands on the confidentiality agreement; the client-lawyer relationship automatically assumes this privilege when a conversation is initiated. Unlike other contract-based confidentiality agreements, your client-lawyer relationship is blanketed by an underlying confidentiality code without needing paper proof.

As a client, you’re protected by both attorney-client privilege and lawyer confidentiality when you speak to an attorney, so even if a court determines that certain information isn’t covered by the former, the latter will almost always protect the information anyway. However, there are exceptions to the confidentiality rule:

  • To prevent certain death, bodily harm, or substantial property or finance damages
  • To obtain ethics advice
  • To comply with other laws or a court order

You can also lose your right to confidentiality if you speak to your lawyer in a public place where others can hear you, speak to your lawyer over the phone in a jailhouse, invite other witnesses to be present, or share your conversation with others later.

Your Trusted Georgia Law Firm

If you’re unsure about your rights as a client in a relationship with a lawyer or attorney, you can call  Nelson & Smith Attorneys at Law today for a free consultation about your situation. If you believe your attorney has wrongfully spread your secrets to other people, we can help support your case in a court of law. Speak to a professional about your lawsuit instead of depending on the advice of non-professionals – contact us today to experience quality, trustworthy, and dependable attorneys at law.