Bioethics Blogs

Should lawyers always keep their client’s secrets?


In Chicago, 1982, a security guard at a McDonald’s was shot and killed. Alton Logan was charged with the crime. There was only one problem – Logan was innocent. Another man, Andrew Wilson, was the killer. Logan would spend 26 years in prison before being released.

We might shrug off unfortunate cases like this as simply bad luck. But there was an additional twist to this story: Andrew Wilson had confessed the murder to his lawyers. They knew that an innocent man was about to go to jail for their client’s crime, but were bound by professional rules to keep the admission secret.

Could rules that require lawyers to watch while an innocent person is sent to prison possibly be justified? Should lawyers always keep their client’s secrets?


Why do obligations of secrecy exist?

The traditional justification for lawyers keeping their client’s secrets is that it “promotes the public interest … in encouraging the client to make a full and frank disclosure of the relevant circumstances”. In other words, it promotes candour with lawyers, which allows individuals to be better advised and represented.

Related to this argument, secrecy encourages clients to admit to wrongdoing, which may then enable lawyers to “exercise their powers of persuasion in stopping the conduct.” Another way to understand this idea is that, without secrecy, information may never reach anyone else – and having it reach the lawyer may be better than nothing. For instance, Andrew Wilson’s lawyers eventually convinced him to allow his secret to come out after his death – and it was this information which ultimately exonerated Alton Logan.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.