It’s been nearly ten years since the North Carolina Supreme Court decided a case involving the attorney-client privilege. That case was In re Miller, 357 N.C. 316, 584 S.E.2d 772 (2003), which raised the question whether the privilege survives the death of the client. (It does.)
That case, which involved a criminal investigation, raised some esoteric issues. Those are probably unlikely to come up in a business litigation practice, but Judge Jolly’s Order last week in Meir v. Meir is likely to have more of a day-to-day impact on your practice.
Let’s say your client is questioned about the facts underlying the Complaint that you drafted based on those facts as told to you by her. Are those facts privileged because they were told to you, her attorney? Of course not. We all should know that.
But what if you, lawyer, tell her, client, the facts you have learned about her claim from other sources. Is that privileged? Can you instruct her not to answer questions about those facts at her deposition?
Not so sure about that situation? The Meir Order has the answer: you may not instruct your client not to answer those questions. Judge Jolly ruled as follows:
The attorney-client privilege does not protect against the disclosure of facts. Rather, it only protects against the disclosure of certain confidential communications between an attorney and client. See Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383, 396-97 (1981); In re Miller, 357 N.C. 316, 336 (2003). The fact that Violet Meir and her counsel may have discussed certain facts related to this case does not trigger the application of any protection as to those facts. The court concludes that the
attorney-client privilege does not attach to specific facts simply because Violet Meir is aware of those facts only because of conversations with her attorney. In addition, the attorney-client privilege does not protect against the disclosure of Violet Meir’s personal opinions, feelings or knowledge.
Op. Par. 10.
The attorney-client privilege isn’t like a "cone of silence" that extends to the exchange of facts between attorney and client.
And if you are too young to remember the TV show Get Smart, which occasionally referred to the Cone of Silence, click here. This might be the most valuable thing that you learn from this post.