Part 1 of this two-part series explored the basic elements of the attorney-client privilege. Part 2 will discuss some of the restrictions to the privilege.
The privilege applies only to legal matters.
While legal advice is protected, advice that is considered “business advice” may not. Unfortunately, the line between legal and business advice is not always clear. Legal advice requires that the attorney interpret law and apply it to specific facts to do one (or both) of two things: tell the client what to do in the future or tell the client what was done right (or wrong) in the past. Business advice involves discussions about the operations of a client which are independent from legal considerations.
If the communication involves both legal advice and business advice, the general rule is that the legal advice must predominate over the business advice. See, Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Hill, 2013 WL 3293496 (E.D. La. June 28, 2013), vacated and remanded on other grounds by Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Hill (5th Cir. May 6, 2014).
The crime-fraud exception.
The privilege is also subject to the “crime fraud” exception. Communications between an attorney and client regarding either: 1) a plan or intent to commit a crime or fraud; or 2) while the crime or fraud is being committed, are not protected by the attorney-client privilege. Remember, you obtain the services of an attorney to obtain legal advice, not illegal advice. As explained by the court in State v. Menard, 02-1182 (La. App. 3 Cir. 5/7/03), 844 So. 2d 1117, the reasons for the privilege cease to operate when the legal advice refers to future wrongdoing.
The privilege also has other limitations, including the fact that it may be waived, intentionally or unintentionally, by the client. As discussed in Part 1 of this blog, the decision to include third-parties in conversations and communications (including emails) between the client and the attorney may waive the privilege. If a client sues an attorney after the relationship has terminated, the privilege is likewise waived, and the attorney can discuss privileged communications to defend himself against that suit. Similarly, if an attorney acted as a notary or witness to a document, the attorney may discuss whether a document is authentic or whether the signors were legally competent to sign. Interestingly, the privilege also does not apply to communications with a deceased client if the communications are relevant to an inheritance dispute.
The attorney client privilege offers broad protection; however, it is important to remember that this protection is not without its limits.