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What Is Attorney-Client Privilege and How Does It Work?

Our Wisconsin federal crime defense lawyers examine attorney-client privileges.

As the client of a lawyer, you have a certain privilege to speak freely. This is known as “attorney-client privilege.” It means that information shared between a criminal defense lawyer and his or her clients is confidential and cannot legally be disclosed by the attorney, nor can a court require the attorney to divulge the information.

First, let us explain the difference between a lawyer and an attorney. Like others, we use the terms interchangeably, but technically there’s a difference. A lawyer is a person who has a law degree. An attorney is a lawyer who has passed the bar in their jurisdiction and is licensed to represent people in legal matters.

Patrick K. Cafferty of Cafferty Law Office has been a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin since 1994. He represents people charged with state and federal criminal offenses throughout Southeastern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois.

Clients and prospective clients who speak with Mr. Cafferty enjoy attorney-client privilege.

Wisconsin state statutes and case law, as well as the Wisconsin attorney’s oath and rules of professional conduct all confirm attorney-client privilege.

In general, communication between a client (criminal defendant or otherwise) and his or her attorney is to remain confidential unless the client agrees that it can be revealed. This includes spoken and written communication. It also requires that no one else be made privy to the information, not just law enforcement or the courts, but other lawyers or attorneys who may be consulted, the press, family, friends, etc.

As the Wisconsin State Bar explained in its official publication, Wisconsin Lawyer, in December 2004, the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in Harold Sampson Children’s Trust v. Linda Gale Sampson 1979 Trust “established with certainty that the client owns and controls the attorney-client privilege.”

Attorney-client privilege enables a lawyer to defend a client to the best of his or her abilities. To do so, the attorney must have a full understanding of the case, which is only possible if the client is honest and open about what happened.

The fact that communications between a defendant and his or her attorney are confidential / privileged, allows the openness and honesty required to fully defend the client’s rights. When a defense attorney has all of the facts, he or she can plan the best defense for their client to work toward the best available outcome of the case.

There are a few limitations on attorney-client privilege. An attorney may divulge communications if:

  • The attorney’s services were retained to aid the commission of a crime or fraud
  • The information communicated is relevant to the case of a co-defendant represented by the same attorney
  • It is relevant to a dispute over a will in which multiple individuals claim to represent the deceased
  • A former client makes a claim against the attorney
  • The attorney becomes a witness, such as to testify as to the authenticity of a document.

If you have been charged with a crime, you need to obtain legal advice as soon as possible, and should do so with total confidence that what you say to a lawyer will remain confidential. If you need the help of an experienced, ethical criminal defense attorney in Wisconsin, contact Cafferty Law Office today.