Legal Ethics

Noted law prof defends his Trump tweet, says he underestimated Twitterverse cynicism

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Laurence Tribe

Laurence H. Tribe. File photo by ©Kathy Anderson.

It was this tweet by Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe that led to online condemnation: “I have notes of when Trump phoned me for legal advice in 1996. I’m now figuring out whether our talk was privileged.”

Tribe later concluded in another tweet that he was at liberty to disclose the notes, but he wouldn’t do so. But the critics were nonetheless tweeting, blogging and penning an article taking the law professor to task for what they saw as a confidentiality breach, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports.

Writing at Forbes, George Mason University law professor Michael Krauss said Tribe had been imprecise and should have characterized the issue as relating to confidentiality rather than attorney-client privilege. Krauss goes on to say that disclosing Trump’s request for advice could be “a flagrant breach of ethics” if Trump had kept secret his call to Tribe.

Blogging at Simple Justice, criminal defense lawyer Scott Greenfield also criticized Tribe’s tweet in a post titled “Disbar Laurence Tribe.”

“Tribe used this obviously insipid question to deliberately do harm to a client whose confidences he was ethically obligated to maintain,” Greenfield wrote.

Tribe defended himself in an email to the Wall Street Journal Law Blog. It read:

“The tweet I sent about Mr. Trump having sought my legal advice 20 years ago breached no confidence and violated no privilege. I did wonder whether disclosing my notes of that call would be improper, thought that raising that question in a tweet might help me think the issue through, decided that it wouldn’t be improper in any technical sense but concluded that I wouldn’t disclose the notes in any event. People who doubt the propriety of my even having mentioned that Mr. Trump sought my counsel assume that the very fact of his call was some kind of secret. I don’t know for sure, but I have no reason to doubt that he let others know that he was calling me. He often expresses pride in seeking expert counsel. Besides, the fact that he sought advice on a legal question was nothing to be ashamed about.

“In any event, I have never revealed the substantive topic of his inquiry, never said whether or not I offered him any advice, never agreed to represent him, and have said nothing at all about the content of our conversation other than that he asked my legal views about something. That shouldn’t have raised the eyebrows it did; I guess I underestimated the cynicism that pervades some corners of the Twitterverse.”

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