The attorney-client privilege is perhaps the oldest of the privileges for confidential communications known to common law. But the privilege is not available to a client who seeks legal advice to commit an ongoing or future crime or fraud. To prevent those abuses, courts have fashioned a limited exception to the privilege known as the crime-fraud exception.
Most attorneys understand that if they advise a client on how to rob a bank or perpetrate a fraud, their communications will not be shielded by the privilege. Yet, few attorneys realize that there is an increasing risk that their adversaries in litigation may use the crime-fraud exception to strip away the privilege protecting attorney-client communications in civil discovery. Most attorneys would view such an intrusion as an assault on the basic structure of the privilege. Without a strong, clear standard against such efforts in the civil arena, we expect there to be more attempts to expand the application of the crime-fraud exception to collateral litigation-related conduct in civil cases: particularly in the fast-evolving area of e-discovery and the unfamiliar and intimidating realm of information technology.
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