Lawyers and client confidentiality. Death does not part us.

It has been a while since I’ve written about a good ethics opinion.  There is a Maine opinion from a few months ago that fits the bill (and interestingly was actually posed by bar counsel in Maine apparently) but before I spend a little bit of time discussing it, I want to give context behind why it interested me enough to write about at this point when it actually came out in April.

Quite recently in Memphis, a very well-known lawyer with some involvement in pretty historic litigation in Memphis passed away.  While he had lived a long and storied life, the end came quickly as it does for many folks in that a stroke was followed within weeks by his passing.  The local daily paper here in Memphis did a very nice piece about the attorney’s passing (behind a modified sort of paywall) which, unfortunately, was marred just a little bit by a piece of misinformation that was included as a result of a quote from the deceased lawyer’s son (not a lawyer).

The quote in question was this:

“Attorney-client privilege no longer exists after the client passes away,” Mr. Caywood’s son said. “So Dad was able to testify for the prosecution. He was able to admit in court that Holly feared for her life.”

A tough spot for the reporter, of course.  It’s a good quote even if the first part is not true, but it is a shame for the paper of record in our city to put that information out there.  In Tennessee, as with most U.S. jurisdictions, the attorney-client privilege does survive the death of the client.  There is assuredly another explanation for why the lawyer was able to testify in the particular matter about the client after the client’s death even though the son may not have been aware of it.

With that now as context, let’s talk about that Maine ethics opinion — Opinion #213 from the Professional Ethics Commission of the Board of Overseers of the Bar in Maine, which makes the correct point that the ethical obligation of client confidentiality also survives death – whether that is the client’s death or the lawyer’s death.  It also makes for an interesting opinion to write about it from the perspective of my state, Tennessee, because Maine has a version of RPC 1.6 that is something of a blend between the older version of the rule on client confidentiality — under the Code of Professional Responsibility — that spoke in terms of protection for “confidences” and “secrets,” and the current version of the rule under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct approach that we have in Tennessee that extends more broadly to “information related to the representation of the client.”  Specifically, unlike Tennessee’s version of RPC 1.6(a) which reads like the ABA Model Rule, the Maine version provides that:

A lawyer shall not reveal a confidence or secret of a client unless, (i) the client gives informed consent; (ii) the lawyer reasonably believes that disclosure is authorized in order to carry out the representation; or (iii) the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b).

The Maine version of the rule on confidentiality also defines the terms “confidence” and “secret:”

As used in Rule 1.6, “confidence” refers to information protected by the attorney-client privilege under applicable law, and “secret” refers to other information relating to the representation if there is a reasonable prospect that revealing the information will adversely affect a material interest of the client or if the client has instructed the lawyer not to reveal such information.

So the question being answered by the Maine opinion is: can a law firm, in possession of really, really, really old client files with documents of arguably historical value, donate those files to a library or an educational institution?  The short answer, if you don’t want to read any further, is “no,” not without client consent.  Given that the clients are long dead, then the opinion explains likely not without the lawyer slogging through files on a document-by-document basis.

In fact, if you do want to read further, you should probably just go read the Maine opinion because it has some eloquent bits, but if you don’t then I can’t come up with a better way to end this post then with the Conclusion of the Maine opinion:

In short, absent a reasonably reliable indication of informed consent or some other exception to the requirements of Rule 1.6 or a meaningful ability to determine that the materials held by the attorney were not client “confidences” or “secrets,” the attorney may not divulge the confidential materials in that attorney’s possession despite the passage of time and the potential historical significance of the materials.

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