Attorney Work Product

I recently got a lift to the airport from a lawyer at a mid-sized firm who I’d met only earlier in the day. “It must be a pleasure to work for you,” he said.

On the one hand, that seemed strange, since I work so hard to establish a public persona that I’m a pain in the neck. (Frankly, that’s not much of a charade.) On the other hand, this seemed not at all strange, since I’ve now grown accustomed to lawyers at firms sucking up to me.

But I figured I’d play along: “Why would it be a pleasure to work for me?” I asked, innocently. “I’m pretty tough on our outside counsel.”

“Because you can tell good from bad. You worked in private practice for 25 years, and you’ve labored in my field. I suspect that, back when you were playing the game, you could write a pretty good brief. When an outside lawyer sends a bad brief to you, you may criticize it, but at least when a lawyer sends a good brief to you, you’ll recognize that it’s good. I work with an awful lot of clients who can’t distinguish good work from bad.”

Ha! Here’s an issue that I’d noticed when I was in private practice, but never really thought about. And it’s an issue that arises frequently in-house, because an in-house lawyer’s clients typically are not lawyers. My chauffeur may have thought that he was currying my favor by flattering me, but in fact he was doing something much, much better — he’d given me fodder for a blog post.

What should lawyers do when their clients can’t tell good legal work from bad?

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My work life revolves around email. Because of the size of our company, and the geographical locations of my clients, I spend a majority of my day on email. Like many of you, I have a disclaimer below my signature stating that the correspondence is attorney-client privileged, and so on. But is it really? Many times, the answer is no. I know enough to use the disclaimer in an abundance of caution, but my clients often have no idea whether what they send across email is indeed privileged.

Like Susan Moon, I am often referred to as “council.” That’s fine, it doesn’t really bother me, and is rather innocuous. Sometimes however, a client will take it upon themselves to write in bold, ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGED, within the subject line. And that does bother me. Folks with just enough legal knowledge to be dangerous, are often just that — dangerous. Now, the email may indeed be seeking my advice, or concern a legal matter within that client’s region, but the client should not assume that to be the case. The misunderstanding of the privilege could lead to problems in the future, say, in a discovery period….

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