Codes of legal ethics vary state by state, but most draw heavily from the ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct. The ABA has revised Rule 1.6 (duty of confidentiality) in recent years, adding or clarifying exceptions, and states have been adopting these revisions very gradually, leading to many splits between states about when a lawyer can, or must, divulge confidential client information. I have a new article on SSRN criticizing the confidentiality rules from a variety of angles: Against Confidentiality. Feedback is welcome! Here is the abstract:
Confidentiality rules form an important part of the ethical codes for lawyers, as a modern, expansive extension of the traditional attorney-client privilege doctrine. The legal academy, judiciary, and practitioners generally agree on the conventional wisdom that strict confidentiality rules are necessary to foster client-lawyer communication, thereby providing lawyers with information they need for effective representation. Yet this premise is demonstrably false – clients withhold information or lie to their lawyers despite the confidentiality rules, and the rules are mostly redundant with other ethical rules, evidentiary doctrines, and effective market mechanisms for protecting client privacy interests. At the same time, the confidentiality rules impose significant social costs – direct externalities, lemons effects, and even serious harm to third parties. This Article argues that the lawyer confidentiality rules are ripe for repeal, revision, or rejection in the form of civil disobedience in certain cases. Using analytical tools from economics, including the Coase Theorem, this Article goes beyond previous piecemeal criticisms of the rules to provide an extensive analysis of the social costs – and illusory benefits – of the ethical rules that compel lawyers to conceal client secrets. The rules undermine public trust in the legal system, and overall transparency and cooperation in society. In extreme instances, the rules facilitate wrongful convictions of innocent third parties and other serious harms. In relation to the other ethical rules, the confidentiality rules are generally in tension with, or redundant of, other rules designed to protect clients and third parties. The Article concludes with specific normative proposals for revising the rules, or challenging the existing rules as a way to force reforms.