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What, Exactly, Is the Attorney-Client Privilege?

The attorney-client privilege in the United States is often defined by reference to the “5 Cs:” (1) a Communication (2) made in Confidence (3) between a Client (4) and Counsel (5) for the purpose of seeking or providing legal Counsel or advice.

  • Virtually all types of communications or exchanges between a client and attorney may be covered by the attorney-client privilege, including oral communications and documentary communications like emails, letters, or even text messages.
  • The communication must be confidential. That means the communication is limited to the client and the lawyer.  If anyone outside the attorney-client relationship receives the communication – for example, a close friend copied on an email to the lawyer – the privilege is lost.  Even if such a communication is made in confidence, it loses the privilege.  That is called “waiving” the privilege. 
  • The communication must be made by a client. A formal retainer agreement is not necessary.  It’s enough for the individual to honestly believe he is consulting the lawyer for purposes of obtaining legal advice in advancing his own interests.  A corporation can be a “client” too.  In that case, the privilege protects communications between the company’s lawyer – whether an “in-house” lawyer employed by the company, like a general counsel, or “outside” counsel at a law firm – and the company’s employees so long as the communications fall within the scope of the employee’s duties. 
  • The client’s communications must be made to counsel – a lawyer. The privilege also covers a client’s communications with individuals who assist the lawyer in the representation, such as a paralegal or an investigator.
  • Finally, the communications must be made for the purpose of seeking or providing legal counsel – legal advice. In the corporate context, that means a lawyer’s communications are not privileged when the lawyer is providing business advice.

The purpose of the attorney-client privilege is to promote open and frank communications between clients and their lawyers.  To represent a client effectively, lawyers must have access to all relevant information concerning the representation.  The attorney-client privilege recognizes that a client is more likely to provide a lawyer with all relevant information – even information that might be embarrassing or unpleasant to discuss – if those communications cannot be further disclosed without the client’s consent.

The privilege also ensures that lawyers can provide candid and frank legal advice to their clients.  For example, a lawyer might be more circumspect in discussing whether a client’s course of conduct amounts to fraud if that conversation could be disclosed to prosecutorial authorities or a potential adversary in civil litigation.

 The attorney-client privilege is a foundational component of the American legal system.  Not only does its guarantee of confidentiality allow for better legal advice, it promotes compliance with the law by encouraging communication.  A client in doubt about whether certain conduct is within the law is more apt to seek advice of counsel knowing that advice cannot be shared outside the attorney-client relationship.

Some might be surprised to learn that not all branches of government honor the attorney-client privilege.  Congress, for example, has long asserted that the privilege is a judicial privilege that does apply to Congress.  It has maintained that its members and its committees, through their investigative powers, could compel someone to disclose protected attorney-client communications.  Nonetheless, Congress typically agrees not to demand privileged information so stand-offs related to the assertion of privilege before Congress are rare.

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