Change and Continuity in Attorney-Client Confidentiality: The New Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct

99 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2007

See all articles by Gregory C. Sisk

Gregory C. Sisk

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)


As part of the new Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct that became effective on July 1, 2005, the Iowa Supreme Court adopted language in Rules 1.6 and 3.3 that enlarged the circumstances for permissive disclosure by lawyers of attorney-client confidential information, but also established a mandatory requirement of disclosure in three contexts. First, under Rule 1.6, lawyers have been granted expanded discretion to disclose confidential information for the purpose of preventing, mitigating, or rectifying financial or property harm caused by a client's commission of a crime or fraud when the lawyer's services were used in furtherance of that conduct. Second, a lawyer is required to reveal information if the lawyer believes it reasonably necessary to prevent imminent death or substantial bodily harm. Third, Rule 4.1(b), which forbids a lawyer from knowingly "fail[ing] to disclose a material fact to a third person when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client," when read together with the exceptions in Rule 1.6(b)(2) and (3) permitting disclosure to prevent or rectify substantial financial harm caused by client criminal or fraudulent behavior, effectively requires disclosure of confidential information in certain circumstances. Fourth, under Rule 3.3, a lawyer who discovers that a client has committed fraud upon a tribunal in a proceeding that is not yet concluded is obliged to take reasonable remedial measures, including disclosure to the tribunal if necessary. Unlike the standard under the prior Iowa Code of Professional Responsibility, the fact that the lawyer's knowledge of the client's perjury or other fraud on the court was obtained through a confidential communication does not excuse nondisclosure of the information.

While the changes in the ethics rules are meaningful, and in certain respects strike a different balance than under previous ethical standards between upholding confidentiality and affirming other professional or public-regarding obligations, the effect of these changes should not be overstated nor should the extent of the change be exaggerated. Rule 1.6 provides more in the way of continuity, than an introduction of change, in attorney-client confidentiality in Iowa. The core of attorney-client confidentiality remains undisturbed. The lawyer's discretion or obligation to disclose ordinarily is limited to extraordinary circumstances in which serious harm is reasonably certain to occur or has resulted. The exceptions to confidentiality remain few and continue to be narrowly drawn. In sum, the promise of confidentiality offered by the lawyer to the client continues to be as good as gold, excepting only those rare circumstances where the client's own persistence along a wrongful path or other disturbing potential for great harm tarnishes that expectation of confidentiality.

This Article is designed to assist Iowa lawyers in becoming more informed about confidentiality and familiar with the new rules, while placing the subject within the context of Iowa history and expectations. Moreover, because Iowa's new rules closely follow the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, including the changes made during and following the Ethics 2000 revisions, Iowa should be a good case study for the new standards as they affect confidentiality. As with any set of rules, their effectiveness and integrity depend not only upon what the text says but also upon the informed discretion of lawyers in applying those rules and the wise judgment of the courts in interpreting those rules in the context of each case.

Keywords: Professional responsibility, legal ethics, attorney-client privilege, confidentiality, Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Iowa

Suggested Citation

Sisk, Gregory C., Change and Continuity in Attorney-Client Confidentiality: The New Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct. Drake Law Review, Vol. 55, p. 347, 2007; U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-14. Available at SSRN:

Gregory C. Sisk (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States
651-962-4892 (Phone)

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