February 10, 2012
By Meredith Linscott, 3L
ATLANTA - Like most third-year law students, I have taken the required Professional Responsibility course and the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Exam. While I walked away from both understanding that client confidentiality is essential for a lawyer, it was not until I had my first semester in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic that I understood what it really meant to keep a client’s information confidential and how hard it actually was to do so.
One day, my six-year-old child began to ask me what seemed like innocent, logical questions:
Child: "What are you doing for school?"
Me: "I am trying to help a little girl get money to help her with books
and other things she needs."
Child: "Is that who you borrowed my movies and Nintendo DS for?"
Me: "Yes, we were meeting with her mommy, and we thought she
would like to watch a movie or play a game."
Child: "Did she like them?"
Me: "Yes, she watched a movie - thank you."
Child: "What was her name?"
Me: (Fortunately, my client’s name started with an ’A’ and it was easy to roll my almost mistake into a plausible answer:) "A. . . little girl."
Child: "No, I asked what her name was."
Me: "I am sorry but I can’t tell you."
Child: "Why not?"
Me: "Because she has to be able to trust that I can keep her secrets."
Child: "But I only want to know her name, not her secrets."
Me: "I know, but I still can’t tell you that . . . ."
People with any experience with six-year-olds know that the conversation did not end there. It was followed by at least five more minutes of "buts" and more questions. Finally something else got more interesting to her.
While she went on to play with the next best thing, I was left scared at how easy it is to slip up and mention something confidential, especially when talking to family. Up until that moment, my work was always something I could easily come home and talk about. For over ten years, part of the typical evening conversation with my husband, and eventually with my children, would include "how was work?" etc. It would be followed by several minutes of what I worked on or who I was working with and reciprocal questions.
Since this particular conversation, however, I have been admittedly scared to talk about my client’s case. While at work or in a professional environment, I feel more confident in my ability to filter conversations appropriately. When talking with family, it seemed too easy to slip up and mention something that I know - or at least that I think I know - that I am not supposed to say. It was easier to just not talk about it at all.
It was that same fear that led me to say I probably would not meet with a client in a coffee shop when we were having our semester debrief for the Clinic on what has changed for us over the course of the semester. Prior to the Clinic, I thought it was something I "might do" if a client was unable to meet elsewhere. By the end of the semester, I had moved it to the "I would never do" column.
Unfortunately, this was not because I was sure it was something we should not do, or could not do. Rather it was because I was scared for not knowing exactly what is and what is not OK, and so it was easier to avoid it altogether. Fortunately, the variability in the answers to the coffee shop question in our Clinic class suggests that it is not exactly clear for anyone else either, so at least I do not seem to be alone.
While I am hoping the line becomes clearer with experience, I am fearful it may not and am left wondering how many people may have been reprimanded for something that seemed harmless and innocent at the time. One thing is certain, though: until it is clearer, don’t ask me how my day at work was . . . I think?
Senior Administrative Coordinator