You know the saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? Now I am aware that this is a really small town, but like you, when I visit an attorney for personal legal matters, I should be able to expect a certain amount of privacy. That’s not the case here. Evidently, an underling in the lawyer’s office took the saying a bit too literally and decided to use what she knew to impress her friends.
The gossip, as it turns out, was another friend’s visit to the lawyer’s office to take care of private matters. The lawyer’s assistant handled the business for him and then she proceeded to take the liberty of sharing my friend’s private affairs with other mutual friends, outside of the office. My friend’s private information was also used to find out how much property they owned and whose name it was deeded under. This information was also taken out of the privacy of the lawyer’s office and once again shared as gossip.
Finding out if someone owns property can be as easy as using Google, but you can’t always take what you see at face value. There might be other information entered on a property deed that is not public domain. That’s not the issue here. The issue was taking someone’s private legal business and using it to gain additional personal and private information about them. That is unethical.
I respect my friend, so I won’t be saying their name here. I’m not even going to name the lawyer and his assistant, or talk about the private and deeply personal matter he handled for my friend. What I am going to tell you is this; when someone gossips about your personal business in a small town, they can expect those words to make it back to them pretty quickly. You might think you’re only sharing it with your closest friends, but you have no control over who they think their closest friends are, or how many other times they might feel like sharing this gossip too.
This story is about matters that were shared under a professional code of confidentiality and right to privacy, with their attorney, and about the person that used these private legal matters to gossip with others.
According to the American Bar Association, Center for Professional Responsibility, the rules are this;
Rule 1.6 Confidentiality Of Information
(a) A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b).
(b) A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary:
(1) to prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm;
(2) to prevent the client from committing a crime or fraud that is reasonably certain to result in substantial injury to the financial interests or property of another and in furtherance of which the client has used or is using the lawyer’s services;
(3) to prevent, mitigate or rectify substantial injury to the financial interests or property of another that is reasonably certain to result or has resulted from the client’s commission of a crime or fraud in furtherance of which the client has used the lawyer’s services;
(4) to secure legal advice about the lawyer’s compliance with these Rules;
(5) to establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client, to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved, or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client;
(6) to comply with other law or a court order; or
(7) to detect and resolve conflicts of interest arising from the lawyer’s change of employment or from changes in the composition or ownership of a firm, but only if the revealed information would not compromise the attorney-client privilege or otherwise prejudice the client.
(c) A lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.”
I’m not in the habit of telling secrets and I happen to know quite a few of them. I have worked under a strict code of ethics and confidentiality for almost twenty years. I never talked about my work outside of the security of my workplace and I definitely never named names or circumstances that could be traced back to any certain individual. The fact that something this heinous can even transpire so close to home, makes my skin crawl with disgust.
In recent days, the lawyer was contacted by my friend and the situation was reported to him. They asked him to fix the leak in his office. He spoke with the assistant and instead of taking this matter seriously and realizing she violated this person’s privacy, the laws of confidentiality and this client’s HIPAA rights, she decided to tell several people outside the office again, that she got reported! She acts like it’s totally justifiable to continue to discuss a client’s private legal matters with her friends outside of the attorney’s office and to be offended that they reported her for it.
My friend has continued leaving messages on the lawyer’s private cell phone number only to have their calls screened and messages ignored. The lawyer has never followed up or reprimanded the assistant, as far as we know.
Even though we live in a very small town, we still have a right to the same courtesy people get in urban areas. We have a right to professional and ethical treatment. We have a right to privacy and the security that once we leave a professional’s office, our business is in good hands. We have that right.
How would you like it if you woke up tomorrow and realized your right to privacy had suddenly vanished, simply because an administrative assistant decided your secrets were just too juicy to keep to herself? If you ever use this lawyer, that’s a real possibility.