I recently visited a lawyer client of mine at her office. This particular lawyer shares space and a receptionist with a law firm for whom she also performs some work. When I gave my name to the receptionist, she immediately asked, “Are you related to Harry (not his real name)? He’s a client at this firm.”
I am not, in fact, related to “Harry,” but the receptionist’s question gave me pause. What if Harry had retained the firm on a matrimonial matter? (Matrimonial law was one of their practice areas). What if I were related to Harry (or worse yet, his wife) and Harry had not made public his marital problems or his intention to consult with a lawyer.
Even if Harry was very vocal about this firm’s representation or did not mind that the firm’s staff was publicizing the representation, there was no way that I would know that. The receptionist did not know whether I was a client or potential client of the firm or of the lawyer with whom I was meeting. I do not think I would have been too happy to know that the staff at my lawyer’s office was in the habit of publicizing the identity of their clients to anyone who happened to walk through the door.
All lawyers must be very aware of the importance of confidentiality to their clients, not just to be sure that they are in compliance with their jurisdiction’s ethical rules, but simply because they do not want to jeopardize their clients’ trust in them. This duty of confidentiality extends beyond the lawyer to the lawyer’s staff, and even to those who perform work on an outsourced basis for the lawyer or law firm.
It is important that lawyers reiterate the importance of confidentiality to all staff on a regular basis, and that they keep their eyes and ears open for unintentional slips. I am sure that the receptionist I encountered was merely trying to be friendly and making conversation; it was clear that she did not mean to cause any harm. However, these kinds of seemingly innocent confidentiality slips could cause major problems for lawyers, not the least of which is the loss of business or potential business.