2015.31: Ethical Question—Privilege vs. Best Interest


Hypo: In a Texas criminal case, defense counsel receives a video recording in discovery from the state. Assume that she needs to prepare her witnesses for cross-examination by talking to them about the contents of the video. The defendant forbids her from showing the video to the witnesses or even telling them what it shows. She does her best to convince him to allow it, but he refuses.

How does this shake out?

Generally, the defendant has the right to make the strategic decisions in his case (plead guilty? jury or bench trial? jury or judge for punishment? seek lesser-included offense?) but trial counsel makes the tactical decisions (what witnesses to call, what questions to ask). ((Others have characterized the dichotomy as “fundamental” vs. “strategic” decisions, a mixing of metaphors.))Good judgment isn’t what made the client a client. A lawyer has to maintain control over the defense. Often a client will want the lawyer to do things that would be disastrous to the client’s strategic goals; a lawyer can and should refuse. Whether to show the video to potential witnesses, to prepare them to testify, seems to fall under the category of “tactical decisions.” The lawyer has a responsibility to keep the client from making disastrous mistakes. And the video isn’t a secret—the State had it first.

But in Texas criminal cases, according to Rule of Evidence 503(b)(2),

a client has a privilege to prevent the lawyer or lawyer’s representative from disclosing any other fact which came to the knowledge of the lawyer or the lawyer’s representative by reason of the attorney-client relationship.

That seems pretty clear: the lawyer wouldn’t have known about the contents of the videotape if not for the attorney-client relationship, so the client has a privilege to prevent her from disclosing them.

How does this clash between the best interest of the client and the lawyer-client privilege shake out?

The lawyer may be tempted to do what is best for the client’s case, because that’s what she has been hired to do. The lawyer must resist the temptation. There’s ego involved—for her own gratification the lawyer would rather win the case than lose it. The lawyer must set aside her ego.

What if the lawyer will, following the client’s instructions, be ineffective?

Neither the Supreme Court nor this court has ever held that a lawyer provides ineffective assistance by complying with the client’s clear and unambiguous instructions not to present evidence.

Wood v. Quarterman, 491 F.3d 196, 203 (5th Cir.2007).

The privilege must win. The privilege, sacrosanct, should always win. The criminal-defense lawyer should, like Pat McCann, be willing, to go to jail to preserve the privilege.

But what if the lawyer interprets 503(b)(2) nonliterally, so that “any other fact” does not include information that would not be covered by the attorney-client privilege under the rules that we learn in law school?

That’s not what the rule says, but perhaps the lawyer could, by stretching, reasonably read the rule to allow disclosure of the video to the potential witnesses. Maybe the lawyer is setting aside her ego to make this call. Maybe the client’s concerns are misplaced, and disclosure would truly be in his best interest. Maybe if the client grieves the lawyer the State Bar would agree with the lawyer’s interpretation.

The best interest of the client and the lawyer-client privilege are guiding principles. If not for clients we would not have jobs, and if not for the privilege our clients could not trust us and we could not do our jobs. That the privilege must win is my own judgment. A lawyer might feel that the client’s best interest must win. I would call this “playing God,” disagree with it in harsh terms, and file a grievance if the client sought my help.

Or a lawyer might weight the two principles equally; in that case (and only in that case) it would be acceptable for the lawyer to consider policy, which can’t trump either the privilege or the client’s best interest. For the criminal-defense lawyer, policy favors privilege. In the vast majority of cases the client will benefit from reading the privilege more broadly, and if we accede to a narrow reading in one case we may sacrifice our ability to argue in all of those other cases that the rule says what it means.


2 responses to “2015.31: Ethical Question—Privilege vs. Best Interest”

  1. Your analysis appears to presume that determining what is in a client’s best interest is not a strategic decision. That seems questionable.

    • I don’t think it does. The client might well decide that not having momma learn of his confession is more important than beating the rap. I would agree that this is a strategic decision, which is why I would characterize the lawyer’s countermanding of that decision as “playing God.”

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