Attorney-Client Privilege

The New York Court of Appeals recently clarified and reinforced the attorney-client privilege, explaining that certain internal training materials reflecting legal analysis of statutory, regulatory, and decisional law constituted attorney-client communications “prepared for the purpose of facilitating the rendition of legal advice or services, in the course of a professional relationship,” and rejected numerous arguments to the contrary.

A three-way circuit split has long plagued the realm of attorney-client privilege on how to treat communications that implicate both legal and non-legal concerns (known as “dual-purpose communications”). Namely, if a lawyer communicates with their client, simultaneously providing legal advice and business advice, is the entire communication protected by the attorney-client privilege? How substantial must the legal advice be for the communication to be privileged? The Supreme Court recently had the opportunity to resolve this split, but in a strange turn of events, dismissed the previously granted writ of certiorari as improvidently granted two weeks after hearing oral argument. Before delving into the oral argument and subsequent dismissal by the Supreme Court, it is worth reviewing a brief history of the existing circuit split.

Back in May, we wrote about a pending motion before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, in which the U.S. Department of Justice and several state attorneys general (“DOJ Plaintiffs”) sought to sanction Defendant Google and compel disclosure of all emails withheld for privilege that legal counsel received but never responded to (affectionately referred to as “silent attorney” emails).  The DOJ Plaintiffs claimed the silent attorney emails constituted artificial requests for legal advice intended to conceal sensitive business communications from discovery.  After the parties briefed the issues, the judge ordered that the parties identify cases in support of their positions on whether the judge had the power to issue sanctions for pre-litigation conduct, and further ordered Google to produce a random sample of 210 of the 21,000 “silent attorney” emails for the court’s in camera review.

If a request for legal advice goes unanswered, is it really a request for legal advice?  According to the U.S. Department of Justice and several state attorneys general (“DOJ Plaintiffs”) in an antitrust action against Google, United States, et. al. v. Google, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the answer to this question should be “no,” at least where the unanswered request for legal advice is part of an internal company practice intended to conceal sensitive, non-privileged documents from discovery.

Citing new deposition testimony, actor Justin Theroux in a recent motion asked the New York Supreme Court to reconsider its December 2020 denial of Theroux’s motion to compel production of emails that his neighbor, Norman Resnicow, a law firm partner, sent to his personal lawyer about the parties’ quarrel (related to the New York City co-op where they both reside) using his law firm email account. 

The prosecution of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the infamous healthcare and life sciences company, Theranos, Inc., has sparked media attention around the country. With just a few months before trial is slated to begin, Holmes recently lost her pretrial battle over whether the attorney-client privilege precludes the introduction of certain emails with counsel.  While the emails at issue remain sealed from public view, related filings and hearings indicate Holmes and lawyers at Boies Schiller Flexner LLP (“BSF”) attempted to prevent the Wall Street Journal from exposing the startup’s impending collapse.