Put simply, the attorney-client privilege means what you say to your lawyer is confidential. Your communications with your attorney are meant to be “full and frank” so as to allow your lawyer the ability to best represent you and your interests.

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In other words, the more open you are, the better your lawyer can help your case.

The attorney-client privilege generally begins when you ask a lawyer for legal advice. Note that this can be in an initial consultation, not simply when you sign a letter of engagement. Setting matters: if you approach a lawyer in his office and explain your legal matter, it should be confidential. If you’re talking to a lawyer at a picnic? Not confidential.

If you’re worried, make sure you ask the lawyer you’re considering hiring if your initial conversation is confidential.

By and large, anything you say to your attorney is protected and private. There are a few exceptions, however:

  • If there’s a third party present. If anyone else is in the room with you, you’re not talking only to your lawyer. Note that your spouse does not count here. In fact, there are laws in place that govern spousal privilege: in many cases, your wife or husband cannot be forced to testify against you.
  • Similarly, you waive the privilege if you tell information which was previously confidential to another party. Once you tell your friends what you told your lawyer, in other words, the privilege may be waived.
  • If you tell your lawyer you’re going to commit a crime. Attorneys are bound ethically to inform law enforcement if you are planning on committing a crime which does harm to another person. That last part is an important distinction. Your lawyer doesn’t have to alert the authorities if you tell him you’re going to jay walk after work or drive without a license. If you tell him you’re going to kidnap someone, then your attorney must inform the police.

In other words, the attorney-client privilege is waived in rare and specific circumstances. It’s in place to allow you to tell your lawyer everything they need to know to help you with your case. Be honest. Be forthright. It will help your attorney do their job to the best of their ability.

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Get started Ask a Lawyer a Question You'll hear back in one business day.