I doubt President Reagan had the following in mind when he made the above remarks, but let his comments set the stage for this hypothetical:
You’re a busy lawyer working at your desk, and the receptionist calls. “There are a pair of FBI agents in the lobby, and they would like to talk to you about a matter you worked on a few years ago. They know they don’t have an appointment, but they promise it won’t take long and said it’s really important. Can you come down and see them?” Or maybe they call you directly. Or show up at your home, while you’re having dinner. What do you do?
Well, if you are a lawyer, and the authorities wish to ask you questions about your clients, you are about to engage in a particularly perilous activity. Do you know what you can say? Is the identity of your client a confidence you can disclose in this setting? Have you thought through the privilege issues? What about the duties you might have to notify a current client of the contact? A former client? What if the officers ask you to keep their contact confidential? Will you then have to testify in a grand jury? What if you said something, and later think that wasn’t quite right? This is a lot to process on the spur of the moment.
So, what’s a lawyer to do with a pair of G-men tapping their toes in reception? One approach: “Hi. Thanks for coming. Can I have your card? I or someone else will get back to you promptly.” And then call your counsel!
Even for non-lawyers, while many of us have the entirely understandable urge to be good cooperative citizens, you may still be about to embark in risky behavior. I’ll let the good professor, below, offer his take on the virtues of the Fifth Amendment.