Disclosing Public Info About Clients

Earlier this month, the ABA issued advisory opinion 480, which says that attorneys cannot reveal client information even if that information is in the public record. The opinion points to Model Rule 1.6, which states:

A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the  representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b).

This rule is certainly a statement of good practice. Attorneys absolutely should be guarded in how they communicate about their clients’ matters. In fact, they should err on the side of caution when it comes to talking about their clients. I’ve hired a lot of lawyers over the last 20+ years, and I can say, without exception, that I would expect that each and every one of them would ask my permission before talking publicly about ANYTHING related to the representation that I might possibly have a problem with – even if that information is in the public record.

But what an attorney should do is a completely different question than that of what an attorney is compelled to do.  The distinction between best practices and legal compulsion (a distinction lawyers should do a better job of appreciating, btw) is the critical thing to keep in mind in understanding why ABA opinion 480 is wrong.

Why? Because we attorneys don’t give up our First Amendment rights when we get licensed. And while these rights leave room for appropriate regulation of professional speech (even if the exact standard for such regulation remains undetermined), there’s little reason to believe that a blanket rule of the sort adopted by the opinion would pass Constitutional scrutiny.

In reaching its conclusion, the opinion stretches to find a way around Hunter v. Virginia State Bar, 744 S.E.2d 611 (Va. 2013), the Virginia Supreme Court case that dealt directly with a state bar arguing that its rules prevented lawyers from writing about matters of public record. To do so, the opinion states  “the Committee regards Hunter as limited to its facts.”

Well, that’s nice. But is that limiting distinction appropriate? Let’s go to the opinion in Hunter:

The VSB argues that it can prohibit an attorney from repeating truthful information made in a public judicial proceeding even though others can disseminate this information because an attorney repeating it could inhibit clients from freely communicating with their attorneys or because it would undermine public confidence in the legal profession. Such concerns, however, are unsupported by the evidence. To the extent that the information is aired in a public forum, privacy considerations must yield to First Amendment protections. In that respect, a lawyer is no more prohibited than any other citizen from reporting what transpired in the courtroom.

The ABA opinion seems to find it distinguishing that there was no evidence to support the Virginia Bar’s opinion. That’s true – there wasn’t.  But the implication of this isn’t that Hunter is an outlier. Rather, it’s that any attempt to punish an attorney for disclosing public record information would need to be supported by evidence.

What’s more, that evidence – and the particular application of Rule 1.6 to punish  an attorney for such disclosure – would most likely need to meet the bar for strict scrutiny. As the Hunter decision notes:

State action that punishes the publication of truthful information can rarely survive constitutional scrutiny.

Well, yes – this is a fundamental cornerstone of free speech law. While one can imagine scenarios where this hurdle could be met, they certainly aren’t going to be the norm.

I’m sure the drafters of Opinion 480 had their hearts in the right place, and were thinking of client protection. It’s an understandable impulse, and like I wrote at the outset, this is an area where attorneys should go far beyond what the Rules require. But we can’t turn a blind eye to the First Amendment – and read that “should” as a “must” – simply because we know what the best practice is.

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