Communications between lawyers and outside consultants, such as e-discovery vendors, are largely protected by the attorney work product doctrine, but may also be protected by the attorney-client privilege and court rules preventing the disclosure of communications with non-testifying consultants. To preserve the confidentiality of these communications, there are a few things to keep in mind.
The work product doctrine generally prohibits the disclosure of a lawyer’s work performed in anticipation of litigation. Attorney work product protection is often set out in court rules such as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(3)(A) and state counterparts like California Code of Civil Procedure 2018.030 and Indiana Rule of Trial Procedure 26(b)(3). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(3)(A) provides that “[o]rdinarily, a party may not discover documents and tangible things that are prepared in anticipation of litigation or for trial by or for another party or its representative (including the other party’s attorney, consultant, surety, indemnitor, insurer, or agent).”
The genesis of work product protection is found in case law including Hickman v. Taylor, 329 U.S. 495 (1947), a United States Supreme Court case in which the justices noted that disclosure of an attorney’s work “contravenes the public policy underlying the orderly prosecution and defense of legal claims. Not even the most liberal of discovery theories can justify unwarranted inquiries into the files and the mental impressions of an attorney.” Acknowledging that attorneys rely on the help of investigators, consultants and other third parties, in United States v. Nobles, 422 U.S. 225 (1975) the Court made clear that the work product doctrine also limits disclosure of the work of those assisting attorneys in litigation. “[The reality] is that attorneys often must rely on the assistance of investigators and other agents in the compilation of materials in preparation for trial. It is therefore necessary that the doctrine protect material prepared by agents for the attorney as well as those prepared by the attorney himself.”
In addition to work product protection, in certain circumstances, the attorney-client privilege may also shield communications between attorneys and third parties assisting with litigation. For instance, when the third party communicating with the attorney is the “functional equivalent” of an employee to the client, such as an independent contractor, the communications may be privileged. See, e.g. In re Bieter Company, 16 F.3d 929 (8th Cir. 1994). Additionally, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and many state rules, communications with non-testifying litigation consultants are not subject to discovery. For instance, Illinois Rule of Civil Procedure 201(b)(3) provides that “[t]he identity, opinions, and work product of a consultant [who will not be called at trial] are discoverable only upon a showing of exceptional circumstances under which it is impracticable for the party seeking discovery to obtain facts or opinions on the same subject matter by other means.”
Regardless of where the protection for communications between attorneys and litigation vendors arises, confidentiality is not absolute and steps should be taken to preserve the privileged nature of the communications. Below are six things to keep in mind to ensure the confidentiality of the communications.