But you started reading it anyway.
We’re all so inundated with disclaimers and license agreements at every turn that we barely flinch anymore when we see the words privileged and confidential — or worse, long paragraphs in small fonts portending doom for the unwitting recipient of a misdirected email or the surfer of a law firm website. Disclaimers seem to have spread like a consensual virus — a lawyer sees another lawyer using a disclaimer, figures it must be a good idea, and includes it in his own materials.
Website disclaimers are fairly inoffensive. These disclaimers generally warn visitors that the information on the website is not meant to provide legal advice about the visitor’s individual legal problem and caution the visitor not to disclose confidential information in an email or contact form sent to the law firm until the firm has agreed to enter into an attorney-client relationship. Lawyers are concerned, of course, that an opposing or related party to one of the firm’s existing clients might provide confidential information that would conflict the lawyer out of its already existing representation.
There do not appear to be any reported cases that have disqualified a law firm from representing a client because the firm received unsolicited confidential information from a non-client. The Virginia State Bar Committee on Legal Ethics did issue an opinion that compared websites to advertisements in the Yellow Pages. Just as a prospective client who obtains a lawyer’s phone number from a Yellow Pages ad should have no expectation of confidentiality when leaving a voicemail message for a lawyer, the Virginia Bar reasoned that there ordinarily should be no expectation of confidentiality in an email message sent from a website. The opinion recommends, but does not require, that Virginia lawyers include such a disclaimer on their websites and cautions that lawyers may create a duty of confidentiality through sites that offer a “free evaluation” of a prospective client’s case and invite web visitors to provide the lawyer with information about their situations.
Website disclaimers are designed to address the exact same situation repeatedly: stranger v. law firm. No disclosure of an existing client’s confidential information is involved, and whether the stranger reads the disclaimer or heeds its warning is of no consequence to the law firm, which has discharged its duty to itself (protect against claims of reliance on alleged legal advice) and to its existing clients (prevent being disqualified from existing representations).
Email disclaimers, however, are a different and dangerous breed.
They probably have their roots in that antiquated technology: the facsimile transmission (which our ancestors colloquially referred to as a fax). Right after the first lawyer sent a fax to opposing counsel when it was meant for the client‘s eyes only, that lawyer starting putting a disclaimer on the fax cover sheet. That way, the next time it happened the blame for the mistake could be shifted from the lawyer to the accidental recipient, who had no business reading that fax in the first place. When lawyers started using email, it must have seemed only logical to try to remedy the predictable calamity of the future misdirected email with a warning to those who receive messages that were not intended for them.
Now, probably 80% or more of the emails I receive from lawyers contain some form of disclaimer. Nearly all appear after the signature block; in longer messages they don’t even appear on the screen until I scroll down further. Some simply declare that the email is “privileged and confidential;” most suggest that the email “may” be privileged and confidential (how I should determine whether it is or not is not explained), and either ask or demand that I notify the sender, and destroy the email and any paper copies I may have printed.
There are several problems with these disclaimers, aside from cluttering up email threads. For one, attorney-client privilege and confidentiality are not the same thing. Without digressing too much, suffice it to say that while all attorney-client privileged communications are confidential, only a small portion of the client information lawyers are required to treat as confidential is also privileged. Another incongruity is that an email intentionally sent from a lawyer to almost anyone except a client will not be confidential or privileged at all (setting aside agents or experts the lawyer may be contacting on the client’s behalf or negotiations subject to a confidentiality agreement or rule). So for the vast majority of emails that lawyers send — to colleagues, to witnesses, to vendors, to friends, to listservs, etc. — the disclaimer is meaningless.
Undermining Disclaimers Through Overuse
Which brings us to the real problem with these disclaimers. By overusing them, lawyers may be undermining the effectiveness of disclaimers in protecting the confidential or privileged nature of the information in the email in the (hopefully) rare event that an email is misdirected (or inadvertently produced in discovery).
In Scott v. Beth Israel Medical Center Inc., 847 N.Y.S.2d 436, 444 (2007), the court refused to find that a series of emails were privileged just because they contained a disclaimer that was found in every email sent by the plaintiff. Moreover, by overusing disclaimers and privilege warnings, lawyers are training the world to ignore them — which is precisely what we don’t want people to do.
Using Disclaimers Appropriately
Appropriately used, disclaimers may allow lawyers to rescue misdirected emails that were sent to other parties and preserve the client’s confidentiality, particularly in close cases in which the confidential or privileged nature of the email is not clearly apparent on the face of the email. Those disclaimers should be sparingly used, appear at the beginning rather than the end of the email, and state that information in the email is confidential or privileged only when it really is. That way, unintended recipients might really sit up and take notice when they see privileged and confidential declared in an email.
This was originally published on November 17, 2008. It was (lightly) revised and re-published on February 21, 2014.
Featured image: “confidentiality” from Shutterstock.