Sinking Ships

An anonymous commenter left a really good question:

I was wondering if I might ask you a serious question, that isn't at all meant to be accusatory or anything. How do you decide when something is OK to blog about, and not a breach of client confidentiality? I am working for a public defender's office this summer (I'll be a 3L in the Fall), and I'm wondering how much I am permitted to tell my friends what I'm doing. Can I safely say in generalities what the issue is on a brief I just submitted, such as a Terry stop where the officer was looking for drugs? Do I have to just say a Terry stop? Can I only say a motion to suppress?

This is something that I consider a lot. I think that it's ok to speak in generalities. I don't see any problem talking about "a Terry stop where the officer was looking for drugs." I think what you want to avoid speaking about a case in a way that would make the defendant or the case recognizable. (I.e. "These kids got stopped on Main Street on Friday night..." might be crossing the line.) If you're unsure, then don't say it.

I think your purpose in sharing it with your friend is also important. It's important for colleagues to discuss cases to get advice from one another. It's also important for lawyers to sometimes discuss their cases with non-lawyers, for example, to get a sense of how a jury might react to the case. But, to me, there's a big difference between saying to your social worker friend, "I'm helping out with this case that involves child abuse and molestation. I'm supposed to help him find treatment. Do you know any organizations that do counseling for that kind of situation?" and saying to even the same friend, "Eeew, we have this client who was having sex with his 7-year-old step-daughter... how gross is that?" Not necessarily because you're sharing more details (in fact, it might be okay to share those details with the social work friend if it would be helpful in finding the necessary treatment), but because of the way you're talking about it.

On that note, and slightly off-topic from your original question, you might sometimes hear PDs talk bad about their clients. You might hear, "This guy is a jerk," or "I hate this client." I won't say that they're burnt out, but different lawyers have different ways of dealing with their difficult clients. (And some clients really are jerks.) But nothing bothers me more than hearing an intern speak that way, even amongst themselves. Maybe it's hypocritical, in the way that I can say something bad about my mother but you'd better never dare talk about my mother. But if you don't like the clients, find a more productive way to address it or leave. And you just shouldn't get that sick of our clients in a summer.

And, finally, if you get to work on a case that has even the slightest bit of media coverage, you should keep a very tight lip. You never ever know what slight little off-hand remark could leave someone you thought was your friend running to call a reporter. And you never know what very general comment about the case could make it recognizable to someone who read about it in the paper.

If you're in doubt, you should talk about it with the intern supervisor or the attorney(s) you're assisting. Hopefully they'll see it as a good opportunity to discuss practical ethics with you.

Thanks for the question. I hope you love your internship, and feel free to come back with any more questions you come up with!

3 comments:

  1. You never ever know what slight little off-hand remark could leave someone you thought was your friend running to call a reporter.

    Or to post a blog entry.

    I don't understand. Why can't you discuss cases with friends? Or on your blog? (Well, you can't to preserve your own anonymity, but what about other lawyers?) I see lawyers talking to the press all the time.

    I had assumed the limit was client confidentiality, but you folks are talking about concealing things like motions or even the names of your clients. I thought that stuff was all part of the public record. Why can't you discuss non-privileged matters?

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  2. Thank you very much for responding to my comment, Blonde Justice. I would have e-mailed it to you, but I didn't see an address on your site, so I took the liberty of threadjacking on the other post. :P

    I will definitely ask the attorneys in my office, that is a good idea. The reason I asked you first is that I thought you might be able to tell me if it was an awful question, with an obvious answer of yes or no. :P

    I've read your blog since I came across your adventures in traffic court post in December 2004 and I had you and your blog in mind when I first interviewed and then accepted this summer internship, so I rather respect your opinon!

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  3. Aaawww! That's so sweet! I love to imagine all these little Blonde Justices in training. Congrats on your internship. I hope you love it as much as I did. And keep reading!

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