FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

March 3, 2015

The Parameters of the Attorney/Client Privilege and Grinding it out with Anthony Mason

Filed under: Attorney-Client Privilege,PetroTiger — tfoxlaw @ 12:01 am

Anthony MasonThere were two notable deaths over the weekend from the sports world. The first was Anthony Mason and the second Minnie Minoso. Today, we celebrate the life of Anthony Mason. Mason was a part of the Patrick Ewing-led New York Knicks who played against the Houston Rockets for the 1994 National Basketball Association (NBA) Championship. Mason was not the star but for me, he was the workhorse of a grind-it-out style of basketball popular in those days. Mason was not fancy or flashy or the most talented player on the team. But he always seemed to be the guy who got the job down, doing the spadework of slogging away in Pat Riley’s offense. He died way too young at only 48 of congestive heart failure but he symbolized a Knicks team that was on the verge of greatness, largely because of the size of his defective heart. I am sure he is banging way, getting rebounds in the Basketball Court of Dreams wherever he is now.

Mason’s style of play seems to be a good introduction to my topic today –attorney/client privilege. The upcoming trial of former PetroTiger co-Chief Executive Officer (co-CEO) Joel Sigelman has brought this issue to the fore again recently. As part of its undercover operation the FBI wired up the PetroTiger General Counsel (GC), Gregory Weisman, and instructed him to go meet with Sigelman to discuss the payments by the company to the wife of an official of the Columbian state owned energy company Ecopetrol.

Sigelman’s counsel sought to have the video and audio recordings of this meeting suppressed based upon the attorney-client privilege that generally protects open communications between lawyer’s and their clients, where legal advice is sought by the client. To determine whether Sigelman has a valid claim, it is encumbent to understand the parameters of the attorney/client privilege. In an article, entitled “The Evolving Attorney-Client Privilege: Business Entities”, David E. Keltner wrote that under US federal law, the attorney/client applies when the following are present:

  1. A client is seeking legal advice or a lawyer’s services;
  2. The person to whom the communication is made is a lawyer or his or her representative;
  3. The communication relates to a fact disclosed from a client (a representative) to a lawyer (a representative);
  4. Strangers are not present;
  5. A client requires confidentiality.

The significance of meeting each of these five prongs is critical. If they are met, “Absent privilege, once the attorney-client privilege is properly invoked – the privilege is absolute.” However the failure to meet Prong 1 is what doomed former co-CEO Sigelman’s efforts; he was not seeking legal advice. It was former GC Weisman who flew to Sigelman’s home to confront him over the fact that the FBI had come to his house asking questions about the payments made in Columbia. Finally, it is important to note that the attorney/client privilege belongs to the corporation and not to any one individual.

Neither Sigelman nor Weisman tried to claim another related, yet different privilege; the attorney/work product privilege. In his article, Keltner noted, “The attorney-client privilege and the attorney work-product doctrine are often asserted interchangeably. While there is some overlap between the two, the attorney-client privilege is significantly different than the attorney work-product doctrine.” Moreover as “codified in Fed R.Civ. P. 26(b)(3), [the attorney/work product] provides a qualified protection to materials prepared by party’s counsel or other representative in the anticipation of litigation.” The doctrine exists “because it permits lawyers to “work with a certain degree of privacy, free from unnecessary intrusion by opposing parties . . .” Unlike the attorney-client privilege which belongs to a client, work-product immunity may be asserted either by the lawyer or the client. While the attorney-client privilege is included in the Rules of Evidence, the work-product doctrine is included in the Rules of Civil Procedure in the series relating to discovery.”

However the attorney/client privilege can be waived. While there is a general recognition that “only an authorized agent of a corporation may waive the privilege of the corporation” Keltner advises that the “most frequently encountered instances of losing the privilege through selective disclosure” are in responding to a government investigation; supplying information to a government agency; information disclosed in certain Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings or other required financial disclosures; in certain circumstances disclosures to external corporate auditors or accounting responses; any disclosure made to a third party not affiliated with a lawyer; and insurance disclosures.

How should we apply the above to the situation faced by former co-CEO Sigelman? Was he simply meeting with his lawyer or was he seeking legal advice? As reported by Joel Schectman in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), in an article entitled “Secret Informant Recordings to be Allowed in PetroTiger Case”, the trial court distinguished between having an attorney/client relationship from the attorney/client privilege. Schectman reported, “a judge in U.S. District Court in Camden said last week that merely having an attorney-client relationship isn’t enough to make all conversations privileged–a client needs to be actively seeking legal advice. “I cannot find a shred of indication that Weisman is there with the intention of giving legal advice to Sigelman,” Judge Joseph Irenas said, “or the converse, that Sigelman was seeking legal advice from Weisman.””

Indeed it appeared to Judge Irenas that it was the attorney asking the co-CEO what to do. Schectman wrote, “But Judge Irenas ruled that in the recorded December 2012 conversation, Mr. Sigelman was not seeking counsel from Mr. Weisman–if anything he was offering it. The FBI had come knocking on Mr. Weisman’s door, according to court documents, asking about suspicious payments and he came to Mr. Sigelman’s Miami apartment in a panic, asking what he should do. Unbeknownst to Mr. Sigelman, the former company counsel was secretly wearing a hidden camera on his body. Mr. Sigelman advised Mr. Weisman to calm down “regroup, go on vacation, collect yourself, come out [expletive] strong,” according to court documents. “Weisman says,” the judge, said paraphrasing the recording,” ‘I made these payments because you asked me to and suddenly I find the FBI is on my doorstep and I’m scared. What do I do?’ It isn’t Sigelman asking Weisman for advice, it’s quite the reverse. It’s Weisman asking Sigelman for advice and Sigelman giving advice.””

Interestingly the trial court did not opine on the question on who was the client in this situation. My experience is that most CEO-types think of a GC as their personal lawyer. However that view is also misplaced as a GC works for a company and the client is the corporation. While he did not have to reach the question of who was the client in the Sigelman/Weisman meeting, the trial court might well have allowed the current corporate owners of PetroTiger to waive any privilege asserted by a former co-CEO. Schectman quoted G. Derek Andreson, a lawyer specializing in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, that “Attorney client privilege is often misinterpreted as broader than it is.”

Did the FBI take advantage of some special type of relationship between Sigelman and Weisman? As reported in the article, in his brief attempting to suppress the evidence, Sigelman’s counsel said, ““Messrs. Sigelman and Weisman had a “long standing attorney-client relationship, one that fostered candor and trust between them–as any good attorney-client relationship should. The government took advantage of this trust.”” However that would seem to be the nature of wiring up cooperating witnesses; if they cannot engender trust with those they are speaking to and surreptitiously taping; it would seem they are of little use to authorities.

I often say that bad cases make bad law. The Sigelman assertion of attorney/client privilege is not one of them. As Mike Volkov has written in a wider review of the assertion of the attorney/client privilege, “The courts have responded with real antagonism to this over-assertion, or slap-happy, privilege claims. The courts are frustrated when they look behind these broad claims and find no basis whatsoever for a privilege claim, especially when it comes to compliance-generated information. Defense counsel also have routinely claimed privilege over emails which have an attorney cc’d but the purpose of the communications had nothing to do with seeking legal advice. As can be seen from a number of important trial judge decisions, defense counsel are losing credibility rapidly with their broad privilege claims.”

Just as Mason did the hard work in Riley’s grind-it-out offense; for the attorney/client privilege to be of use to you, certain hard work must be done to establish the attorney/client privilege in the corporate context. The five prongs listed by Keltner must be fulfilled for the privilege to apply. Simply having a chat with your lawyer or even the company’s lawyer will not invoke the privilege or protect you.

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This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2015

February 19, 2014

Welcome to the Hotel California: FCPA Enforcement

Hotel CaliforniaThis past weekend I saw The Eagles on their ‘History of The Eagles Tour. It truly was that, a complete musical history of the group, from the beginning in 1971 up until now. They played for well over 3 hours and it was fantastic. The Eagles were at their peak in the 70’s when I was at my peak as a rock and roller, both in high school and college, so the concert was a very memorable experience. In one interesting twist they did not allow videos to be taken of the concert with cell phones or any other types of recordings. Of course the concert ended with song Hotel California and its iconic line “You can check out but you can never leave.”

I thought about that final line and how true it was in the late 70s and how true it is now in the world of international anti-corruption enforcement when I read a front page article in Sunday’s New York Times (NYT), entitled “Eavesdropping Ensnared American Law Firm”, and an blog post by the FCPA Professor, entitled “FCPA Lawyers Would Be Wise to Review Recent Third Circuit Decision”.

We know from the American Spectator article, “Rise of the Surveillance State”, by James Bovard about the National Security Agency (NSA) program ‘Echelon’, which he described as “a spy satellite system run by the National Security Agency along with the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Echelon reportedly scans millions of phone calls, e-mail messages, and faxes each hour, searching for key words.” Further, Bovard stated, “A February report by the European Union alleged that Echelon has been used for economic espionage. Former CIA Director James Woolsey told a German newspaper in early March that Echelon collects “economic intelligence.”” One example Woolsey gave was espionage aimed at discovering when foreign companies are paying bribes to obtain contracts that might otherwise go to American companies. Woolsey elaborated on his views in a March 17, 2001 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Op-Ed piece, justifying Echelon spying on foreign companies because some foreigners do not obey the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).

After the NYT article, we know that US law firms can also fall under surveillance. The firm of Mayer Brown was monitored by the NSA’s Australian counterpart, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), regarding work the law firm was doing for the government of Indonesia in trade disputes with the US. It is of no consequence that it was the Australians doing the spying as under the “Five Eyes Alliance”, Australia is one of five countries the US shares intel with and agrees not to spy on. While most Americans would understand the need to place those dealing with terrorists under surveillance, the need to monitor US law firms giving legal advice in a legal trade dispute seems one or two steps past the safety of the US homeland. While only mentioned in the article, I also wonder about the effect of this surveillance on the attorney-client privilege, the basic reason that clients come to lawyers, for confidential legal advice. If you know that you are susceptible to espionage, why would a client ever trust the confidentiality of your communications or even that they are confidential to start with. Moreover, if you know you are subject to surveillance, is the privilege destroyed if a country does so and passes the information along to the US?

Equally unsettling as the revelations in the NYT article is the FCPA Professor’s report on a Third Circuit, Court of Appeals decision, entitled “In Re: Grand Jury Subpoena”. In this matter, an attorney was consulted on an international transaction, which was described as follows: “In April 2008, Client approached Attorney to discuss issues he was having with the project. Client explained that he planned on paying Banker in order to ensure that the project progressed swiftly, as Banker was threatening to slow down the approval process. Attorney did some preliminary research, found the FCPA, and asked Client whether the Bank was a government entity and whether Banker was a government official. Although Attorney could not ascertain given his limited research whether the planned action was legal or illegal, he advised Client not to make the payment. Despite this advice, Client insisted that his proposed payment did not violate the FCPA, and informed Attorney that he would go ahead with the payment. Attorney gave Client a copy of the FCPA. After this communication, Attorney and Client ended their relationship.” The opinion stated that the Client made a payment to the banker’s sister.

In other words, the client came for legal advice regarding an international transaction, the attorney advised against the transaction in question but the client did so against the advice of his attorney and the attorney thereafter terminated the relationship. There was no evidence the lawyer advised the client how to violate the FCPA or in any way helped the client ‘get around’ the law.

The attorney-client privilege is not sacrosanct. There are some limited exceptions to it and one of those is the ‘crime-fraud exception’ which the Court of Appeals explained is, “To circumvent [the attorney-client] privilege under the crime-fraud exception, the party seeking to overcome the privilege . . . must make a prima facie showing that (1) the client was committing or intending to commit a fraud or crime, and (2) the attorney-client communications were in furtherance of that alleged crime or fraud.” (All citations omitted) But, in this case, there was no evidence presented that the attorney involved gave advice that was in the furtherance of a crime but only that “The communication between Attorney and Client was brief, and consisted mainly of informing Client on the applicable law and advising that he not make the payment. However, we believe that the questions posed by Attorney to Client and the information that Client could gain from those questions are sufficient for us to conclude that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the advice was used in furtherance of a crime or fraud.”

What were the questions posed by the client or put another way, what was the legal advice sought by the client? The Court stated, the “questions about whether or not the Bank was a governmental entity and whether Banker was a government official would have informed Client that the governmental connection was key to violating the FCPA. This would lead logically to the idea of routing the payment through Banker’s sister, who was not connected to the Bank, in order to avoid the reaches of the FCPA or detection of the violation. Of course, it is impossible to know what Client thought or how he processed the information gained from Attorney. But the District Court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Client “could easily have used [the advice] to shape the contours of conduct intended to escape the reaches of the law.””

What does the spying on a US law firm and this court decision invalidating the attorney-client privilege mean for FCPA enforcement? I think that it means if you find yourself in the position of having violated the FCPA; your company now has an even greater incentive to self-disclose. If you are a non-US based company subject to the FCPA, the NSA is watching you. Further, if you are a non-US company, which seeks legal advice, you are now on notice that US laws firm are being spied on. Lastly, if you have violated the FCPA and seek legal advice; it may well come to pass that the lawyer whose advice you sought, can be compelled to testify about those conversations. So in the words of The Eagles, if you engage in conduct that arguably violated the FCPA, you can check out but you can never leave.

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If you will be in Dallas this coming Thursday, February 20, I hope that you will join myself and fellow FCPA Blog Contributor Marc Bohn at the Corporate Compliance Summit on 2014 FCPA Concerns You Cannot Afford to Ignore. The event is complimentary and is sponsored by The Network. You can check it out and register by clicking here.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2014

July 22, 2013

Froome Wins the Tour and a Victory for Law Firms on Their Privilege

Yesterday Chris Froome won the 100th incarnation of the Tour de France. He held the leader’s position, as signified by wearing the Yellow Jersey, since Day 8 of the Tour. Froome is the second Englishman to win the race in the last 100 years, the first being Bradley Wiggins last year. Perhaps even Cubs fans can take heart from waiting 99 years to win and then having two Brits win it back-to-back. It was a great Tour this year and a big tip of the racing helmet to Chris Froome and Team Sky. (One programing request to the Tour officials – please do not begin next year’s race during the final week of Wimbledon, as my wife has control of the television during that two week event.)

This past week there was a decision by the Georgia Supreme court in the case of St. Simons Waterfront LLC v. Hunter, MacLean, Exley & Dunn, PC (No. S12G1924, decided July 11, 2013). This was a much awaited decision on the extent that a law firm could claim attorney-client privilege for its internal legal consultations in the face of a malpractice claim. The law firm had prepared certain real estate sales contracts, which were used by the firm’s client, St. Simons Waterfront LLC (SSW). After buyers began to opt out of these contracts to purchase certain properties, the law firm suggested that the company negotiate with the purchasers.

I. Background

The company demanded that the law firm work to enforce the agreements. Curriden wrote that “The lawyers for Hunter Maclean took the scolding as a sign that St. Simons Waterfront was planning a malpractice claim against them and contacted the firm’s in-house counsel immediately after the call.” He quoted the lawyer for St. Simons Waterfront who said that “Within minutes of the conference call, Hunter Maclean lawyers were already taking legal steps to defend themselves for litigation, even though they were still representing the client and would continue to represent the client for another three months.”

The law firm understood that their client was threatening litigation and claimed they told the client that it needed new counsel. The client said at no time did it suggest that it was preparing to sue its own lawyers and denies that the law firm told them after the phone call in question that a conflict existed and that they should retain new counsel. Indeed later, the client sued the law firm for malpractice in the drafting of the real estate contracts. The dispute before the Georgia Supreme Court was over certain documents that the law firm claims is its internal attorney-client privileged communications, specifically including a 33-page memo from the firm’s own in-house lawyer describing the Feb. 18, 2008, conference call, referenced above, that lawyers at the firm wrote the day after the telephone conversation occurred.

II. Positions of the Parties

Susan W. Cox, counsel representing Hunter Mclean, said that “The documents and communications sought involve efforts by the firm to investigate, evaluate and consider how to respond to the client’s asserted claim.” Therefore, all communications with the firm’s own in-house counsel should be privileged. However, Attorney John G. Nelson, counsel for SSW, said that this reasoning “makes it too easy for law firms to conceal unethical conduct from clients…If the client’s attorneys consult with the in-house attorney—not for the purpose of meeting their ethical obligations to the client but to cover up their own malpractice, and the in-house attorney assists them in doing so—the firm could withhold that information simply because the in-house attorney was ‘segregated’ from directly representing the client.” Nelson further said that “The reason is simple: When a law firm represents a current client, the entire law firm’s fiduciary and ethical duties are to that client.”

III. Georgia Supreme Court Holding

The Georgia Supreme Court held that the attorney/client privilege was available for the law firm to protect its communications with its in-house counsel. After initially noting that it had not addressed the issue before it, the Georgia Supreme Court specifically stated that it the question before it had no bearing on the ethical obligations of lawyers in Georgia under the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct. Hence, the Court said, “we conclude that the potential existence of an imputed conflict of interest between in-house counsel and the firm’s client is not a persuasive basis for abrogating the attorney-client privilege between in-house counsel and the firm’s attorneys.”

After having said that it would analyze the question before it “as we would in any other lawsuit in which the attorney/client privilege is asserted”, the Court said that a determination is based upon a four-part test.

(1)   There is an attorney/client relationship. Under this prong, there must be a determination “that the attorney purporting to act as the firm’s in-house counsel was actually acting in that capacity with regard to anticipated legal action against the firm or other matters related to the firm’s compliance with its legal and ethical obligations. The firm should be clearly established as the client before or in the course of the in-firm communication for the attorney-client privilege to attach. Whether the firm has attained the status of its in-house counsel’s “client” in a given situation is a fact-based determination, which may depend in part on the procedures undertaken to establish the potential or actual malpractice claim against the firm as a matter distinct from the firm’s underlying representation of the client asserting the claim.”

(2)   The communications in question relate to the matters on which legal advice was sought. The attorney/client privilege attaches only to communications that have been made in the course of an attorney client relationship. Further, the communication must have been made for the purposes of receiving or giving legal advice. The Court stated that “In the law firm in-house counsel context, these principles require that the communications be made between the in-house counsel in its capacity as firm counsel and the firm’s attorneys in their capacity as representatives of the client, the law firm, regarding matters within the scope of the attorneys’ employment with the firm.”

(3)   The communications have been maintained in confidence. The Court emphasized that any such communications must be of a confidential nature to maintain the attorney/client privilege. So “As applied within law firms, this principle means that, in order to maintain privileged status, intra-firm communications regarding the client’s claims against the firm should generally involve only in-house counsel, firm management, firm attorneys, and other firm personnel with knowledge about the representation that is the basis for the client’s claims against the firm.”

(4)   There are no exceptions to the attorney/client privilege that are applicable. Most jurisdictions, including Georgia, recognize exceptions to the attorney/client privilege for communications in the furtherance of “crime, fraud or other unlawful end. So, “to the extent there is an allegation that in-house counsel has been employed by firm attorneys in an effort to defraud rather than merely defend against a client, the privilege may be waived.” However, the Georgia Supreme Court refused to graft on a fiduciary or fiduciary duty exception that “one who is acting in a fiduciary capacity cannot assert privilege to shield its communications with counsel from the beneficiary of the fiduciary relationship.”

IV. Conclusion

The Court’s decision is note-worthy not only for what it says but also for what it doesn’t say. The Court held that an analysis of the attorney/client privilege for a law firm is no different than any other commercial enterprises. But the Georgia Supreme Court holds that any analysis of the duties that a Georgia lawyer or law firm have towards its clients are governed by the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct and require a separate analysis. As a former in-house counsel I certainly find it troubling if, at the slightest spat between a law firm and a client, the law firm then ‘lawyers-up’ and girds for a lawsuit. One of the greatest things about the legal profession is that it holds the highest duty possible to its clients. If a law firm is taking a position contrary to its client’s interest, it can no longer ethically represent the client.

In an article in the May issue of the ABA Journal, entitled “Inside Story”, author Mark Curriden reported that, “many corporate GCs privately express concerns about what their law firms may be doing behind their backs.” He quoted Randy Johnston, who focuses his practice at JohnstonTobey PC in Dallas on professional malpractice cases, who said “Corporate general counsel have every right to be concerned that their law firm is secretly plotting against them and their best interests, and are doing so without notifying them”. Johnston goes on further to say “In the end, I think there’s only one solution: Law firms should have the right to internal defense and to work product, but the law firm must immediately inform the client when there is a conflict. Failure to tell the client eviscerates the privilege. Period.”

So, while the law firm won this battle over its own attorney/client privilege, it still may be liable at the end of the day. I would suspect that the matter will be resolved and we will never know the full story. But while we wait, let us all remember the spectacular light show the Tour put on during the awards ceremony yesterday and Chris Froome’s historic win.

For a copy of the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision, click here.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2013

May 7, 2013

Do Law Firms Have an In-House Privilege?

There is often a discussion about the retention of outside counsel to lead an investigation of alleged violations of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) so that the company may maintain the attorney-client privilege. But is there some other privilege which might be lurking in this relationship? This question was discussed in an article in the May issue of the ABA Journal, entitled “Inside Story”, by Mark Curriden, which details a discovery dispute before the Georgia Supreme Court where a law firm has claimed that it enjoys an attorney-client privilege in a malpractice claim brought by a former client. The case involves allegations that communications between a law firm and its in-house counsel are privileged in favor of the law firm and poses the following query: “whether communications between lawyers and in-house counsel are protected by the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine when a dispute arises between the firm and a client.”

The case involves three lawyers from the Savannah, GA law firm of Hunter, Maclean, Exley & Dunn PC (Hunter Mclean). The law firm had prepared certain real estate sales contracts, which were used by the firm’s client, St. Simons Waterfront LLC. After buyers began to opt out of these contracts to purchase certain properties, the law firm suggested that the company negotiate with the purchasers.

The company demanded that the law firm work to enforce the agreements. Curriden wrote that “The lawyers for Hunter Maclean took the scolding as a sign that St. Simons Waterfront was planning a malpractice claim against them and contacted the firm’s in-house counsel immediately after the call.” He quoted the lawyer for St. Simons Waterfront who said that “Within minutes of the conference call, Hunter Maclean lawyers were already taking legal steps to defend themselves for litigation, even though they were still representing the client and would continue to represent the client for another three months.”

The law firm understood that the company was threatening litigation against the law firm and claimed they told the client that it needed new counsel. The company said at no time did it suggest that it was preparing to sue its own lawyers and denies that the law firm told them after the phone call in question that a conflict existed and that the company should retain new counsel.

Indeed later, the client sued the law firm for malpractice in the drafting of the real estate contracts, in a case styled, St. Simons Waterfront v. Hunter, Maclean, Exley & Dunn. The dispute currently before the Georgia Supreme Court is over certain documents that the law firm claims is its internal attorney-client privileged communications , specifically including a 33-page memo from the firm’s own in-house lawyer describing the Feb. 18, 2008, conference call referenced above, that lawyers at the firm wrote the day after the telephone conversation occurred.

Susan W. Cox, counsel representing Hunter Mclean, said that “The documents and communications sought involve efforts by the firm to investigate, evaluate and consider how to respond to the client’s asserted claim.” Curriden further quoted her as stating that “Under the plaintiff’s argument, Cox says, “a law firm would have to immediately withdraw from any further client representation, regardless of the harm to the client and regardless of whether the client consented to the additional temporary and necessary representation, in order to protect its in-house information from disclosure in the malpractice claim. It was impossible for Hunter Maclean to immediately withdraw without causing great harm to the client. Under Georgia and federal law, the attorney-client privilege is interpreted to protect against disclosure of information obtained or shared in a confidential relationship, and that applies equally to communications with in-house and outside counsel.””

However, the trial court disagreed with the law firm’s position and ordered production of the documents “ruling that the privilege didn’t apply because Hunter Maclean failed to inform the client about its conflicts. The judge ordered Hunter Maclean to turn over the internal documents that St. Simons Waterfront was seeking.” Then “The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that the firm’s communications with in-house counsel remained privileged because the in-house counsel was completely isolated from the St. Simons Waterfront legal work and thus did not have a conflict. St. Simons Waterfront appealed to the state supreme court. Oral arguments were held in March.”

The article posited the two schools of thought on this question. Attorney John G. Nelson, counsel for the St. Simons Waterfront, was quoted as saying “The appellate court’s reasoning “makes it too easy for law firms to conceal unethical conduct from clients…If the client’s attorneys consult with the in-house attorney—not for the purpose of meeting their ethical obligations to the client but to cover up their own malpractice, and the in-house attorney assists them in doing so—the firm could withhold that information simply because the in-house attorney was ‘segregated’ from directly representing the client.”” Nelson further said that “The reason is simple: When a law firm represents a current client, the entire law firm’s fiduciary and ethical duties are to that client.”

However at least 13 law firms which are not parties to this dispute, signed an amicus brief in support of the law firm in the discovery dispute. Interestingly, the American Bar Association (ABA) filed an amicus brief which stated the ABA “takes no position on whether the privilege and work product claims in this case should be sustained.” After quoting this statement, Curriden goes on to quote from the ABA’s amicus brief that ““the ABA urges that lawyers’ communications when seeking legal advice from their in-house counsel should be broadly protected because of the benefits to their clients and the legal system, and to lawyers and their firms,” states the association’s brief. “Lawyers face an increasing array of legal and ethics duties, and the availability of in-house advice, without the cost or inconvenience of seeking an outside lawyer, encourages lawyers to pursue internal investigations where questions of misconduct or malpractice arise.”” Therefore, the attorney-client ““privilege should not be abrogated or limited except for compelling reasons.” But this analysis changes “if it is concluded that the client may have a malpractice claim against the lawyer,” states the brief. “Whether the privilege as to further in-house consultations is abrogated or limited during a continuing representation might become a question of fact for the trial court as to whether the client were promptly and adequately informed of the potential claim.””

As a former in-house counsel I certainly find it troubling if, at the slightest spat between a law firm and a client, the law firm then ‘lawyers-up’ and girds for a lawsuit. One of the greatest things about the legal profession is that it holds the highest duty possible to its clients. If a law firm is taking a position contrary to its client’s interest, it cannot no longer ethically represent the client. Curriden ends his article with a short discussion on this point when he said, “many corporate GCs privately express concerns about what their law firms may be doing behind their backs.” He quoted Randy Johnston, who focuses his practice at JohnstonTobey PC in Dallas on professional malpractice cases, who said “Corporate general counsel have every right to be concerned that their law firm is secretly plotting against them and their best interests, and are doing so without notifying them,”. Johnston goes on further to say “In the end, I think there’s only one solution: Law firms should have the right to internal defense and to work product, but the law firm must immediately inform the client when there is a conflict. Failure to tell the client eviscerates the privilege. Period.”

This is a case which certainly bears watching as it may go quite a long way towards fundamentally altering the attorney-client relationship.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2013

February 16, 2012

Attorney-Client Privilege for In-House Counsel

The question of attorney-client privilege (herein “the privilege”) for in-house counsel can be a vexing one, yet one that has significant implications for investigations and enforcement actions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or other anti-corruption legislation. There is a split decision between the US and countries in the European Union (EU) on whether in-house counsel may engage in privileged communications with corporate employers. In a recent article, entitled “In-House Counsel and Corporate Client Communications: Can EU Law after Akzo Noble and U.S. Law after Gucci be Harmonized? Critiques and a Proposal”; published in Volume 45, Number 3 of the International Lawyer, author John Gergacz explored this dichotomy and proposed a simple, yet clear rule to put in place to foster ease of determination of the privilege and promote the goals behind the existence of the privilege.

This question of whether the privilege exists for communications will certainly increase due to the increase in international enforcement actions in the area of anti-corruption and anti-bribery under laws such as the FCPA and UK Bribery Act. It will also arise in investigations involving any other activities which might be subject to both EU and US laws, such as EU competition law and US anti-trust law.

European Union Countries – Status of counsel test

In EU countries, the primary test involves what is the status of the lawyer making the communication. Following a 1982 decision, styled “AM&S Europe v. Commission of European Communities”, the privilege is limited to communications conducted with independent lawyers. Initially, a determination must be made if an attorney is independent, this being defined as to whether or not an attorney was “bound to his client by reason of employment” for example an employee. However, the court decision did not use the term “in-house” counsel but broader formulation of “independent counsel.” While recognizing that this may have left room for interpretation the practice seems to be to deny the privilege when the advice emanates from in-house counsel. Gergacz says that to apply the privilege in the EU is determined by following a two-step process. If this initial threshold of independence is met the analysis turns to the substance of the communication. That is, whether the “communications concerned legal advice and related to the client’s right of defense.”

United States – Type of communication

In all reported jurisdictions in the United States, both in-house counsel and outside counsel communications are eligible for privilege protection. However, within certain states in the US, the analysis is largely centered on the substance of the communication, whether it involves legal advice or more general business advice. This analysis recognizes that in-house counsel may have several “corporate capacities” all of which do not necessarily involve providing legal advice. Gergacz notes that “in practice, in-house counsel may communicate about a number of activities, even though his formal corporate position is to provide legal advice.” He believes that such sentiment has led to a greater scrutiny of in-house counsel communications than those made by outside counsel to a client. This has led courts to be “wary of inadvertently extending privilege confidentiality too far,” when business advice is provided or there are mixed business-legal services delivered.

EU/US Harmonization

Gergacz concludes his article with a proposal to harmonize these two rules for privilege. He believes that both views have merit, with the US recognizing the “equivalence of in-house and outside counsel” and the EU “the concept of counsel independence is noteworthy.” Gergacz’s proposal is that communications with in-house counsel would be privileged if the attorney involved is (1) admitted to a relevant Bar; and (2) has Bar membership status intact that allows him to practice law at the time of the relevant communication.

Gergacz listed three general reasons for his proposal. First, he believes that the proposal is easy to administer as there should not be either court intervention to determine privilege or court review of the communications involved. Simply put, does the lawyer have a license and is it up to date to allow him or her to practice law? Second, he believes that the privilege should be broad enough to encourage candor in communications between attorney and client in the corporate setting, but not so broad as to expand the cloak of confidentiality to “thwart just decisions from being rendered.” Third, and finally, Gergacz writes that in-house counsel often has two roles to fulfill. One is certainly as a lawyer providing legal services, however, it may be that a person who has graduated from a law school or holds a law degree may not be licensed to practice law and may have other roles inside of a corporation. As a practicing lawyer is held to ethical and disciplinary standards whether they are in-house or in private practice, the requirement for Bar membership should satisfy the AM&S line of cases which speak toward ‘independence’ as the key concept for privilege.

I would commend Gergacz’s article to you for a more complete review of the US case law and other issues related to attorney-client privilege. His proposal is certainly an intriguing one and one which deserves rich consideration to simplify this knotty area. In this era of multi-jurisdictional enforcement of laws such as the FCPA and UK Bribery Act, the certainty of whether a communication is privileged or not is an important point for businesses.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2012

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