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Friends Outside the Legal Department? Sure, but Be Careful

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 01, 2015 6:58 AM

Making friends outside the legal department can be difficult. For one, you might be shy or maybe you lack the shared interests needed to make a friendship stick. Or, maybe you just know too much inside dirt.

For in-house lawyers, spreading your social connections outside your department can raise some tricky issues.

Who Doesn't Want More Friends

The legal department can often seem like an outsider within a business. After all, their work isn't usually tied to the company's actual business, but rather to making sure that it gets done legally and with the least liability possible. The in-house counsel can often be the in-house nag -- constantly reminding the rest of the business that, no, it shouldn't be done that way. Making friends in other departments can be an easy way to cross this divide, giving lawyers not just more ways to socialize, but an inside view on how the rest of the world goes about their business. That can help counsel make more informed decisions later on.

Remember Who You Work For

At the same time, being friends with other employees can raise issues, when your client and professional loyalties must be to the corporation. For in-house lawyers, attorney-client relationship is developed between the attorney and the corporate entity itself; it's the corporation's interests that the lawyer must advance, not the employees. This can create a bit of awkwardness when your good friend in accounting needs to be deposed over those missing funds.

Loose Lips Sink Ships

Similarly, being too friendly with other employees can create the risk violating an attorney's duty to confidentiality. Since much of the common ground with co-workers, even when they're close friends, involves work itself, there's plenty of chances for confidential information to get accidentally shared.

If you're the kind of friend to get gossipy during happy hour, this can cause big problems later on. Under Federal Rule of Evidence 502, if privileged material is disclosed "inadvertently," the disclosure does not waive privilege. But, in order to trigger the protection, the attorney must have taken reasonable steps to protect the information in the first place. Lawyers who haven't taken those steps may not be able to claim that information is confidential later.

Of course, these risks aren't anything new to lawyers. Considerations of confidentiality and loyalty to their clients are a major part of practice. However, for in-house counsel, since the interests of their client, a legal abstraction, can often conflict with the interests of its component parts, the company's employees, extra caution should be taken in all interactions, friendly and professional.

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