Movie lovers love a good MacGuffin. MacGuffin is the nickname for the plot device pursued by the protagonist, often against long odds and dramatic obstacles. Hitchock said: “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” In some films, like the glowing contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the MacGuffin is never revealed.
A recent ethics opinion reads like something out of a Hitchcock script. One day, while minding his business, an attorney involved in a fraud lawsuit against the ominously-named “Company,” receives a mysterious email from an anonymous sender, which reads:
I am an ex-employee of Company. I wish to remain anonymous. I don’t want any legal help from you and do not want to hear from you at all. Providing you with the attached document is all the help you will get from me. The attached document is a confidential communication between Company and your opposing counsel. It proves that Company planned and perpetrated the fraud with the advice and assistance of your opposing counsel, who was retained for that purpose, and who has been actively involved in the fraudulent scheme from the very outset, long before the incidents described in your complaint. The attached document will prove your case. Read it and see for yourself.
The question posed is whether the lawyer can read the MacGuffin document. The answer, according to the California ethics gurus, is “No.” Further, the opinion goes on to note that the recipient lawyer has a duty to advise the opposing counsel “that the attorney has possession of the communication” such that the “two attorneys should try to resolve the privilege issue” — good luck with that! — “or, if that fails, obtain the assistance of the court.” From our vantage point, we think it possible that different jurisdictions would reach different conclusions as to a duty to “avert one’s eyes,” but lawyers read on at their peril — perhaps giving rise to a disqualification or other argument.
So, while the MacGuffin in the ethics opinion remains unknown, if you want to see some other MacGuffins that were revealed (more or less), take this quiz. Name both the MacGuffin and the film from each of these dozen movie stills: