The Lawyer/Client Priviledge---Hunter Mountain, NY 1983? 
Sunday, October 26, 2008, 04:29 PM
Posted by Administrator
Hunter Mountain is about 100 miles north of New York City...the closest there is. It is an unusual ski area in that there are chair lifts everwhere. Most ski areas...looking up from the bottom...have narrow slopes with a lift here and there. Hunter Mountain is laid bare, top to bottom, except for the occaisional stand of trees. There are chair lifts everywhere you look...from top to bottom...from middle to top...from bottom to middle...sideways from right to left...from left to right...anywhere they could fit one. All of this to maximize the number of skiers from Manhattan able to buy a lift ticket and have a reasonable chance of making a few runs (after standing on a lift line for half an hour) on a below zero, windy Sunday in January.

One of the great things about Hunter though is the ice. Go to Vail, for instance, and all you get is mile after mile of thick snow cover. It is almost blissful to ski in the Rockies...back and forth and back and forth...about as much challenge (unless you head for the bumps) as sitting in a Jacuzzi. But Hunter's got patches of ice all over...lose your concentration for a few seconds and you are down hard on your ass.

But, I digress...the subject is the lawyer/client priviledge and one day, about 20 years ago, I was visiting New York and riding up on a chairlift at Hunter with my friend Bob Jones. Bob had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (down the valley and to the left), the best cooking school in America, a few years before. He had been working in Manhattan cooking for executives. He had found some people with money who wanted to buy a restaurant with him.

So, we rode up on the chairlift and Bob started talking about the deal and he told me "Steve, they even showed me both sets of book." So, okay, I was admitted to the Bar (but it was the Florida Bar and we were in New York) and everything you tell a lawyer is a secret, so, it was okay to tell me that he was buying a business from tax cheats. Was it?

Prospective clients frequently come to see me about a bankruptcy or a divorce and I need to find out about their assets. "Do you own jewelry?", I frequently ask...(really, I'll ask "What kind of jewelry have you got?"...yes/no answers usually don't reveal much and I can usually tell who has jewelry or valuable assets, generally, by looking at their haircut and their clothing and shoes). "Well", the answer goes "nobody knows about it." Okay, but now I know about it.

Here is the priviledge.......
1) Everything you tell me is a secret. If you committed murder last week, that is a secret. I will take it with me to my grave. I will not tell my wife. I will not tell your wife. I will not tell my mother. I will not tell the cops.

2) But, if you tell me (for example) that you have jewelry and you are about to sign a sworn statement in which you say you don't have jewelry (or you don't list the jewelry that you told me you have) there is no priviledge. By lying under oath...and not disclosing the jewelry...you are committing perjury. And I know you are committing perjury so, if I let you sign the sworn statement...or testify in court that you don't own jewelry...or make any sworn statement at all that I know isn't true then there is no priviledge at all. I've got to try to get you to tell the truth..I can't represent you if I know you are lying...and I may have to tell the court that you are lying if you do it in front of me. (Note that the rule for criminal cases is a little different.) BUT, FOR CIVIL AND CRIMINAL CASES THERE IS NO PRIVILEDGE FOR FUTURE CRIMES. You tell me you are going to go kill someone tomorrow and I am calling the cops.

Here is an example... I had an injury client a few years ago who owned a Greek restaurant. He had a helper working for him who was an illegal alien. The Defendant's lawyer took his deposition. One of his claims was that he couldn't work at the restaurant like he used to because of his injuries.

At the deposition, the Defendant's lawyer asked: "Do you have anyone helping you at the restaurant." "No", he said.

I told the other lawyer I needed to take my client outside the deposition room and talk to him. Now, this is a very tacky thing to do in my opinion. I have seen lawyers advise their clients at the beginning of their deposition that if they have questions about how to answer a question that I ask they should just tell their lawyer and we will all just stop the deposition and so they can go outside and talk about it. Why? So the lawyer can make up the answer?

I wouldn't do this with my clients. We'll take a break if you need to use the bathroom but you need to answer the questions you are asked truthfully and I'll be paying attention ready to object if the other lawyer asked something that is out of line. On the extremely rare occaision I have had a witness who I am deposing wanting to go outside and talk to their lawyer before answering my question (I really can't stop them from leaving) first, I ask the witness on the record ("on the record" means a court reporter...sometimes just a tape recorder... is taking down what is said) "So, just to make it perfectly clear on the record, you are unable to answer my last question without going outside and talking to your lawyer about it, right?" I think this gets the point across.

Anyway, the other lawyer had no idea why I wanted to take my client outside and figured it was so that I could coach him. And it was to coach him.... to coach him to tell the truth because the ethical rules say that I can't sit there and let a client lie. So, I took him into the hall and told him that he had to tell the other lawyer about his illegal alien employee. I told him to answer the question and not add anything to his answer unless he was asked. Yes, he had an employee...this is what the employee did. I told him nobody cared if the employee was illegal, nobody would call the INS.

We went back inside. The deposition continued. "Do you have anyone helping you at the restaurant?" "No", my client said. Off we went back into the hallway. The other lawyer was getting angry. "I have to do this", I said.

Now, remember, I told my client to answer the question and leave it at that unless he was asked a follow up question. "Do you have anyone helping you?" "Yes", he said. "What does he do for you?" A few (unrelated) questions later it happened. "My employee, he is illegal...please, please, please do not get him deported." My client started to cry.

After the deposition was over, I asked the other lawyer "Were you going to ask if the guy was here legally?" "No", she said "I really don't care."

Okay, here is the rule for criminal cases: If your client tells you that he or she is going to lie on the witness stand you can't help him lie by asking questions directed to helping your client get the story out ("So, what happened next?" "Did you go to the car or did you stay?" "Where was Johnny while this was going on?"...you can't ask questions like this...your client is own his own). All you are allowed to do is sit your client on the witness stand and say, more or less "So, tell the jury what happened." I have never seen this happen at any criminal trial. I have never heard of a lawyer just sitting his or her client on the stand and having them tell their story. So, I am convinced that either criminals never lie or, at least, they are smart enough not to tell their lawyers they are going to lie.

If you have things to hide, you need to consider whether a lawyer is going to risk his or her license to help you lie. (I have had prospective clients ask me to help them lie...give them advise on hiding assets, for instance... for a $1,000 fee...are these people crazy ? Or, are they just contemptous of lawyers?)

Sometimes it is a good idea to keep your mouth shut.

Lawyers (at least the ones I know) are generally honest.



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