The law firm of Lizzie Borden’s lead attorney continues to maintain her client files in a confidential manner. In contrast, the trove of notes kept by another attorney on the defense team were discovered by his grandson, who willed the client materials to the local Massachusetts historical society, making them generally accessible some 100 years after the murder trial.
Which is the right result? Does client confidentiality live forever? What if the client is an entity rather than an individual? Should there be some point in time -- 50 or 100 years -- when this right to confidentiality expires? Who will enforce the privilege once all the participants are dead? These questions have important implications for attorneys, law firms, and corporate entities. But they are also questions of importance to librarians whose libraries might be given papers that were protected by the attorney-client privilege, represented work product, or were the subject of an attorney’s ethical obligation to protect the confidentiality of client matters.
This short essay raises these questions and considers the legal, policy, and practical issues involved. Several approaches are outlined and briefly evaluated.