Lawyer-Client Confidentiality and Privilege: What is the Difference?

This Ethics Alert blog will discuss the terms lawyer-client confidentiality and lawyer-client privilege are often used interchangeably and the differences between them may become somewhat blurred.  Although both terms address information related to the client that a lawyer cannot reveal and both are used primarily to protect the client’s ability to confide freely with the lawyer, they are not synonymous.  There are several significant differences with regard to their scope, exceptions, and application.

The primary ethics rule addressing lawyer-client confidentiality in Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6, which is substantially similar to ABA Model Rule 1.6.  The Comment states that “(a) fundamental principle in the client-lawyer relationship is that, in the absence of the client’s informed consent, the lawyer must not reveal information relating to the representation…” A violation of the Bar rule may result in disciplinary sanctions.

Absent an exception, confidential information remains confidential during the representation and after the client dies.  The lawyer should not reveal confidential information if it will injure the client’s interests (absent an exception or legal compulsion), and it should only be disclosed to advance those interests.

A client may give informed consent for the lawyer to reveal confidential information or information that is protected by the privilege and consent may be implied under certain circumstances.  The client must give consent to the waiver of confidentiality; however, the privilege may be inadvertently and impliedly waived by the failure to object to testimony about the privileged communications.

In contrast to privilege, the lawyer’s ethical duties regarding confidentiality are much more extensive in scope and application, particularly as to what information is protected.  Confidentiality applies not only to information received from the client but all information related to the representation, regardless of whether the information came from the client or another source.  In addition, confidentiality applies in all situations, not just in litigation.

The lawyer-client privilege is a litigation concept that arose from the principles of evidence. In Florida, the privilege is set forth in F.S. 90.502.  The client, or someone acting legally for the client, may claim the privilege, typically through the lawyer.  F.S. 90.502(e) states that a lawyer is presumed to have the authority to assert the privilege on behalf of the client.  The privilege only protects communications between the client and lawyer in a litigation context, the communications are not protected if available from another source, and the communications are not necessarily protected simply because of the communication to the lawyer.  The Comment to Bar Rule 4-1.6 states “(t)he attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine apply in judicial and other proceedings…”

The “crime-fraud” exception to the privilege in F.S. 90.502(4)(a) permits the disclosure of information communicated to the lawyer if the client attempts to use the lawyer’s services to commit or cover up a crime or fraud.

Florida Bar Rule 4-1.6(b) requires disclosure of confidential information to prevent a client from committing a crime or to prevent a death or substantial bodily harm to another.  This mandatory exception is different from the crime-fraud exception to privilege in that it requires the threat of substantial injury or death to require that the information be revealed.  There are other exceptions under Bar Rule 4-1.6(c) which permit (but do not require) disclosure by the lawyer.

Even if information is not covered by privilege, it may still be confidential.  Depending on the circumstances, a lawyer may also be compelled to reveal the information regardless of whether it is privileged or confidential.

Bottom line:  Although the use of the terms “lawyer-client confidentiality” and “lawyer-client privilege may often be used interchangeably, they are very different in concept, scope, and application.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150,

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

About jcorsmeier

Joseph A. Corsmeier is an “AV” rated attorney practicing in Clearwater, Florida. He concentrates his practice primarily in the areas of defense of attorney disciplinary matters before The Florida Bar, attorney admission matters before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, and professional license and disciplinary matters before the Boards of the State of Florida. He provides expert analysis and opinion on conflict of interest and other attorney disqualification and legal malpractice issues and he testified as an expert in the Florida courts. He served as an Assistant State Attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit from 1986 to 1990 where he prosecuted felonies exclusively from June 1987, and as Bar Counsel for The Florida Bar’s Department of Lawyer Regulation from 1990 to 1998. He also practices in the areas of estate planning and Medicaid qualification, workers’ compensation, and labor law. Mr. Corsmeier is the author of numerous articles for various bar publications, has spoken at numerous local and statewide seminars on various topics, including ethics and professionalism, and was an instructor of legal ethics for paralegals at Rollins College until the Tampa campus closed. He received his undergraduate degree from Florida State University and his J.D. from Mercer University. He is admitted to practice in all Florida Courts, the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the Middle District of Florida. He is a member of The Florida Bar, American Bar Association, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Bar Associations.
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