The internet has changed everything. Every fool with no money has a blog, every newspaper website caters to the lowest common denominator and every twit can Tweet for free. A percentage of these are former and current clients, both gruntled and dis.
Back in the old days, when you walked 20 miles to work, uphill, in blizzards, with no shoes, the only medium for clients to express their displeasure was filing a grievance with the state bar. Now, clients are able to air their grievances in a more public forum, with no restrictions that their complaints be made in good faith or sworn to.
And since you are what the internet says you are, how far can (or should) one go in response, asks Mike C:
What if a former client writes: “My lawyer was terrible. He never returned my calls or e-mails. I had a million-dollar case, and she blew it!”
Some prospective clients might read that blog entry, and thus never call the lawyer. Current clients might get nervous. Other lawyers might decline to refer a case to the bad lawyer.
Under the current Rules of Professional Conduct, it would certainly be unethical for the lawyer to write: “John Smith called me 5 times each day. He asked the same questions over and over again. After evaluating his case through discovery, we realized his case was marginal. We told him to settle the case for $25,000 – nuisance value. He refused. The trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment. Now he’s angry. By the way, you can read the case filings here, here, and here to decide for yourself whether we blew a huge case.”
Does that Rule make sense? A lawyer can lose business. Online reputation matters – not for a lawyer’s ego – but for his business. The law offers trademark protection. A brand matters. A lawyer is only as good as her name. Shouldn’t a lawyer be able to breach some aspects of the attorney-client privilege in order to protect her name?
First off, this really is nothing new, at least for those of us in the high-volume criminal defense business. I’ve had clients tell me they didn’t want me to represent them and wanted me to, in the same week, based on what their then-cellmates told them about me. You are as good as your current client’s former cellmate says you are.
Second, the differences between revealing confidences to defend against a disciplinary proceeding and responding to a blog post or newspaper comment are quite obvious. The grievance proceeding requires you to defend against the accusations, for failing to do so affects your livelihood.
But what of Mike’s point of the reputation of the lawyer in this age where more and more people are relying on the internet to secure representation? I have the wherewithal to explore any concerns I might have about a prospective lawyer with real people who know that lawyer and that lawyer’s work, but might a potential client? Why shouldn’t a lawyer have the ability to respond, albeit in a limited fashion to that Festivus tradition?
Scott’s take is similarly multi-faceted. He, too, recognizes the need to permit the attorney to have the ability to respond in some fashion, but cautions us that it is constrained in many ways by our continuing obligation to our clients:
[In response to Mike's hypothetical] I’m not entirely clear that’s accurate. Waiver of privilege is an all or nothing proposition. Once a client discloses confidential communications to others, it constitutes a waiver. It’s the client’s to waive, and there’s nothing to prevent her from doing so. It may be stupid and foolhardy, and the client may not realize the significance of disclosure and waiver, but it’s her right to let the world know what happened within the sanctity of the attorney/client relationship. Once waived, however, the privilege is extinguished. Like pregnancy, it’s not just a little waived. It’s waived. End of privilege.
Thus, while there may be no ethical or legal impediment to the use of privileged communications to fend off an attack, and while waiver means waiver, we nonetheless have a duty to disclose no more than is necessary to respond, and a duty to do no harm to the client in the process. While the best defense may be a good offense under other circumstances, we’re constrained to use the least harmful defense possible.
Clearly, the limits placed on our ability to lash back at those who might lash out at us puts lawyers at something of a disadvantage in a street fight, and certainly an attack on the internet can bear all the indicia of a street fight.
I don’t know much about the grievance process and the extent of confidential communications and privileged information that one can disclose in response to a grievance, but there is another area of the law in which confidences are routinely disclosed and that’s the post-conviction setting.