November 26, 2014

American Bar Association Issues Formal Ethics Opinions Regarding Email Confidentiality

On August 4, 2011, the ABA released two ethics opinions. The first, Formal Opinion 11-459, discusses the Duty to Protect the Confidentiality of E-mail Communications with One’s Client:

A lawyer sending or receiving substantive communications with a client via e-mail or other electronic means ordinarily must warn the client about the risk of sending or receiving electronic communications using a computer or other device, or e-mail account, where there is a significant risk that a third party may gain access. In the context of representing an employee, this obligation arises, at the very least, when the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the client is likely to send or receive substantive client-lawyer communications via e-mail or other electronic means, using a business device or system under circumstances where there is a significant risk that the communications will be read by the employer or another third party.

Whenever a lawyer communicates with a client by e-mail, the lawyer must first consider whether, given the client’s situation, there is a significant risk that third parties will have access to the communications. If so, the lawyer must take reasonable care to protect the confidentiality of the communications by giving appropriately tailored advice to the client.

Click here to read the full opinion.

In conjunction with that opinion, the ABA also released Formal Opinion 11-460, entitled Duty when Lawyer Receives Copies of a Third Party’s E-mail Communications with Counsel:

When an employer’s lawyer receives copies of an employee’s private communications with counsel, which the employer located in the employee’s business e-mail file or on the employee’s workplace computer or other device, neither Rule 4.4(b) nor any other Rule requires the employer’s lawyer to notify opposing counsel of the receipt of the communications. However, court decisions, civil procedure rules, or other law may impose such a notification duty, which a lawyer may then be subject to discipline for violating. If the law governing potential disclosure is unclear, Rule 1.6(b)(6) allows the employer’s lawyer to disclose that the employer has retrieved the employee’s attorney-client e-mail communications to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to comply with the relevant law. If no law can reasonably be read as establishing a notification obligation, however, then the decision whether to give notice must be made by the employer-client, and the employer’s lawyer must explain the implications of disclosure, and the available alternatives, as necessary to enable the employer to make an informed decision.

Click here to read the full opinion.

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