There are pluses and minuses to joint defense agreements, but the pluses might outweigh the minuses if the agreements are carefully drafted
MANY situations that involve parallel proceedings also entail multiple respondents, targets or defendants. Cooperation among them can be an essential component in mounting a successful defense to parallel proceedings, but cooperation and sharing of information among parties represented by separate counsel is not without risk. Among those are lack of control over disclosure of privileged information, waiver of privileges, and disqualification of counsel when respondents assert claims against one another or become government witnesses.
One way to minimize the risks and achieve cooperation is through the considered use of the joint defense privilege, embodied in a joint defense agreement. Cooperation in a joint defense effort allows respondents to pool information and coordinate strategies to defeat civil claims and to control investigations by governmental agencies. These shared efforts allow each respondent to develop a global view of the issues and to counter pressure by plaintiffs' attorneys, prosecutors and governmental agencies on individual respondents to incriminate others.
An awareness of the scope of the joint defense privilege and the key components of a workable joint defense agreement will facilitate an informed discussion among counsel for respondents about the potential benefits and disadvantages of such agreements in particular cases.
JOINT DEFENSE PRIVILEGE
The joint defense privilege is "an extension of the attorney-client privilege" and the work product doctrine.1 It protects communications between an individual and an attorney for another when the communications are part of a joint effort to set up a common strategy. "Communications to an attorney to establish a common defense strategy are privileged even though the attorney represents a client with adverse interests."2 The joint defense rule is applicable to both civil and criminal litigation and to both plaintiffs and defendants. It represents an exception to the general rule that disclosure of information protected by the attorney-client privilege to a third party waives the privilege.
The joint defense privilege does not create a new privilege. Rather, it serves to protect an existing privilege from waiver. In this manner, shared information is protected by the attorney-client privilege without the danger of waiver.3 In addition to confidential communications, attorneys' work product also is protected under the joint defense privilege.4
The joint defense privilege has been held applicable in a variety of situations. Courts broadly construe the term "co-defendants," and they have extended the joint defense privilege to civil co-defendants;5 companies individually summoned before a grand jury and who information before any indictment was returned;6 potential coparties to prospective litigation;7 plaintiffs who were pursuing separate actions in different states;8 and civil defendants who were sued in separate actions.9
The apparent justification for the rule is the belief that "persons who share a common interest in litigation should be able to communicate with their respective attorneys and with each other to more effectively prosecute or defend claims."10 The need to protect the free flow of information exists whenever multiple clients share a common interest about a legal matter.
Because the joint defense privilege is an extension of the attorney-client privilege, parties seeking to benefit from it must establish all the elements of the attorney-client privilege, plus the added requirement that the communication in question involves a common legal interest. As with all privileges, the party seeking to invoke it has the burden of establishing all necessary elements.
In order to establish the existence of the privilege the proponent must show that:
* the communications were made in the course of a joint defense effort in prosecuting or defending actual or threatened litigation;
* the communications and exchange of information were designed to further that joint effort; and
* the privilege has not been waived. …