Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Duty of Confidentiality and George Zimmerman's Lawyers

Lawyers are governed by a number of ethical rules, and chief among them are the duties of loyalty and confidentiality owed to clients. 

Certain of the ethical rules include "sub-rules" (or exceptions) that apply when the affected individual is a former (rather than current) client. The duty of confidentiality, however, is phrased in absolute terms: Thou shalt not reveal confidential information about a client, or a former client, without his or her permission.

(Lest anyone forget how important the duty of confidentiality is to the profession, once every couple of year 60 Minutes faithfully runs a piece about an attorney who maintains the confidences of a client among even the most challenging of circumstances -- ie, prison time, death, etc.).


Reflecting on the duty of confidentiality, Emily Bazelon at Slate has a powerful critique (here) of George Zimmerman's former attorneys, Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig.

Zimmerman is the man charged with second degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. Sonner and Uhrig terminated their representation of Zimmerman earlier this week ... and then went public with a number of rather astounding comments about their former client.


Bazelon argues that the lawyers' comments were not only inappropriate but unethical.  She does not mince words:
The rules for confidentiality in the context of a lawyer-client relationship are unequivocal. The American Bar Association’s rules for professional responsibility state that “a lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent.” ...  
And yet, here come [Craig] Sonner and Hal Uhrig, breaking off that representation on television in a series of statements that reveal all kinds of confidential information that could potentially hurt their former client ...  
When a few lawyers break the rules, they blow it for the whole profession. Especially in a high-profile case like this. Whatever you think of George Zimmerman, now that he’s about to face charges, he deserves better lawyers than the ones who just quit on him.
Stephen Gillers, an expert on ethics at NYU Law, expressed his own shock in an e-mail to Bazelon:
“Jaw dropping. Literally. I struggle to find the appropriate adjectives to describe [the lawyers'] behavior. The clip will be useful in legal ethics classes under the heading 'HOW NEVER TO BEHAVE.' ”

Bazelon's piece is persuasive, particularly her argument that questionable behavior by lawyers in the media spotlight -- like Zimmerman's -- can redound poorly on the public's image of the profession as a whole. It certainly makes me wonder how Zimmerman's lawyers would explain their post-representation commentary.