'Good Wife,' Good Law: Death and the Attorney-Client Privilege

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on March 25, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

This week's episode of "The Good Wife" gave viewers a good look at a key issue in legal ethics: the attorney-client privilege. But did Hollywood's depiction live up to reality?

Recap: 'Death of a Client'

The main storyline revolved around a rich (and, as Alicia described him, "very litigious") client who is shot and killed in broad daylight. Police ask for Alicia's help in finding her client's killer -- a request that takes on added urgency when police tell Alicia they have reason to believe the killer may be coming after her next.

Alicia's friend and prosecutor Laura Hellinger (played by Amanda Peet) tries to persuade Alicia to give up some information that may be helpful to the investigation by saying, "You know attorney-client privilege may be waived if the attorney's life is in danger."

But is that true?

Good Law: The Attorney-Client Privilege

Rules regarding the attorney-client privilege vary by state, but they are generally derived from the same source: the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Responsibility. Here's how "The Good Wife" generally got it right:

  • The privilege protects attorney-client communication. Anything discussed between a lawyer and a client for purposes of litigation is privileged, meaning the content of those discussions must be kept confidential (though there are exceptions, such as when the client consents). For Alicia, that meant she could not divulge anything she discussed with her litigious client regarding his 18 on-going lawsuits.
  • The privilege continues indefinitely. As noted in the episode, the attorney-client privilege continues even after the attorney-client relationship ends (again, with some exceptions). That means the privilege continues even after a client's death.

Bad Law? No, Close enough

  • The prevention of death or injury is one exception to the rule. Under the ABA's rules, a lawyer "may" reveal information if it will "prevent reasonably certain death or substantial bodily harm." But the rule in Illinois (where "The Good Wife" takes place) is worded differently: It changes "may" to "shall," making this a mandatory exception to attorney-client privilege. So under Illinois' rules, Alicia would actually have been required to disclose details discussed with her client, if doing so would have prevented imminent death or injury to herself or others.

What did you think of this week's episode of "The Good Wife"? Is the show guilty of making any legal mistakes? Check back here for more legal recaps of "The Good Wife," and send us a tweet @FindLawConsumer with the hashtag #TheGoodWife.

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