As empty nesters, my wife and I ask each other the standard question as we sit down for dinner each night: “How was your day?” We usually exchange small talk about work, the commute and so forth. As an attorney, I am acutely aware of the attorney/client privilege, and therefore careful not to jeopardize my clients’ confidences. Sometimes, however, lawyers and other professionals can’t help disclosing facts about their work that may be deemed violative of confidences. Some may be covered by strict privileges, such as lawyer/client or physician/patient relationships. If the wrong information is disclosed to the wrong person, while not a technical violation of a recognized privilege, the professional can be exposed to claims of an ethical breach, giving rise to licensing issues, negligence claims or damage to business interests.
Many of us heard about the embarrassment of the British attorney who let slip in a casual conversation with his wife’s best friend that J. K. Rowling used a pseudonym on a crime novel she wrote that was published last year. The best friend then passed on the information to a journalist, and the secret was out. Rowling, accused by the media of purposefully leaking the information to increase sales, sued the attorney and the friend. The case was quickly settled with an apology, the payment of Rowling’s legal fees and a charitable contribution. Rowling also agreed to donate three years of profits from the book to the same charity. The attorney was recently fined £1,000 by his professional regulators for violating the attorney/client privilege.
All professionals, however, are capable of disclosing their client’s confidential information, no matter how innocent. Comments repeated about marital status, sexual orientation, financial status, medical issues or a host of other personal information gleaned from communications or contact with a client could lead to embarrassment or objections if disclosed to a spouse, a co-worker or other third party and then repeated.
Real estate brokers, appraisers and many other miscellaneous professionals enter their clients’ homes and/or develop a personal relationship that rises to what the professional may consider a friendship. They must not forget the business relationship on which such friendship is based. While it is natural to discuss the personal situation of those you come into contact with on a daily basis (dare I say “gossip”), there should be some things that remain off limits when it comes to repeating personal client information. There is always the chance that the publication of “private” information could result in embarrassment or damage in the eyes of the client.
While I am not recommending silence at dinner, there are concerns if a professional gets a reputation as someone who cannot keep confidences. While my wife would never tell others if I let slip a personal fact about a client or a co-worker, there are certainly some things that are better left unsaid to a spouse (or realistically that need to be accompanied by a promise not to tell anyone else).