White-collar writer Walt Pavlo of @Forbes and 500 Pearl Street quotes us this morning in his insightful @Forbes article about the attorney-client privilege. In particular:
Federal prosecutors want to know who knew what, and when [about the GM ignition-switch problem]. However, GM’s lawyers and former lawyers are bound, like all lawyers, to uphold the attorney-client privilege. A privilege clients enjoy with their lawyer to openly discuss matters with the assurance that their comments will not be disclosed to others. While the media, Congress and the general public may want an individual(s) held accountable, that information should not come from GM’s lawyers who have been intrusted with confidential information.
Every defense attorney knows more than any judge, jury or prosecutor will ever know about their client. That is a cornerstone of how our adversarial justice system works. We have a right to an attorney and we disclose everything to that attorney trusting that we will be treated fairly by justice. Can you imagine a trial where an attorney testifies against her own client? Neither can I. Corporate lawyers charged with compliance have a client also, the company.
“The purpose of the attorney-client privilege is to find out the truth, to openly discuss truth, to encourage the client to openly discuss the truth with his or or her lawyer,” according to white-collar defense attorney Jack Sharman of Lightfoot, Franklin, White LLC. “At the back end of our justice system, at trial,” he continued, “there’s no doubt that the privilege restricts the availability of some information, some of which is important, but the privilege encourages candor at the front end.”
Having covered a few white-collar trials I can tell you that legal motions by both prosecution and defense lawyers to suppress trial evidence are as common as moths around a porch light. In those cases, getting to the truth at trial is a bit tougher since the incentive is to win, not necessarily to discover the truth. So what good is truth at the front end?
“Your duty as a lawyer is to the client only, whether that is a company or an individual.” Sharman, who also has more of his own views on the GM fallout, said. “When a lawyer tells the client that the information they are disclosing is protected, then that provides an environment, an incentive, for the person to speak the truth.” While that “truth” may not be disclosed, it may be acted upon. “If an employee tells a company lawyer that they have seen something inappropriate or unlawful, that does not prevent the lawyer from speaking up within the organization,” Sharman said. Perhaps this did or did not happen in the GM case but the internal report by Anton Valukas found no intentional cover-up at the company and the release of that information disclosed more truth about the case than had been previously disclosed. So truth has its place and the privilege of confidentiality promotes speaking up rather than hindering it.