Having recently defended an investigation brought by the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division—which was closed without prosecution of our client—we had the opportunity to reflect on ways that lawyers can navigate the high-stakes interactions with government enforcers who are investigating antitrust or other white-collar violations. Those interactions involve a number of fine lines that require real-time judgment calls specific to each situation. That said, we think these “rules of thumb” are generally applicable and will help lawyers and their clients navigate the process as smoothly and favorably as possible.
(Although this article is not focused on subpoena compliance, you can listen to our podcast on subpoena compliance here.)
- Always be truthful. This should go without saying, but your credibility is everything. Once an enforcer suspects that a client or the lawyers have not been forthcoming, problems get worse. If you realize you’ve provided incorrect information to the government inadvertently, correct it at the first opportunity.
- Be transparent about process. In many cases, particularly if you want to limit the scope of a subpoena through negotiations with the enforcer, it is helpful to share information about your investigative process. Disclosing how you’ve searched for documents, what you have (and have not) produced, and what employees you have talked to can help you build credibility and persuade the enforcer not to require additional information. Plus, enforcers don’t like being surprised down the road about what has/has not been provided.
- Focus on the facts. Ultimately, the enforcer will decide whether or not to pursue charges based on the facts of the case. It’s important to make sure that you provide the enforcer with all the facts that help your client, particularly those that provide defensible context for otherwise incriminating facts, even if the subpoena does not specifically ask for them.
- While you should provide information promptly, you do not need to please. Even if your client takes a defensive posture, and is not formally cooperating, it is often prudent to provide government enforcers with information they’re requesting—probably in writing or in the form of an attorney proffer. It is also wise to cooperate in a timely fashion and to be responsive. But there are limits: you’re not required to satisfy every request and you can negotiate timelines. You should also exercise caution, in particular, when the government asks to speak or meet with your client directly. (See the next pro tip).
- Don’t lose what control you have. Being interviewed by the government is very stressful—even for a client who feels they’ve done nothing wrong or has nothing to hide. People sometimes say things they don’t mean because they’re trying to please the interviewer. People like to try to help or protect colleagues and being asked questions about what friends and associates have/have not done can put clients in very uncomfortable situations. Sometimes the lawyer thinks she understands all the details, but a client says something new and unexpected during an interview. It may not be “bad,” but surprises are almost always harrowing. What does all this mean? If you’re not required to put your client in the hot seat, don’t. Consider alternative ways to get the government the information being requested—like an attorney proffer.
- If there is an interview, remember these 5 things:
- Always be truthful (see pro tip #1).
- Tell your client it is okay to stop the interview to speak privately as necessary. In any event, take regular breaks to check in with your client and discuss any surprises.
- This is not a deposition, so the best advice to clients is usually to provide all responsive information they can remember when answering each question.
- “I don’t know” is better than making something up. Don’t make something up—this doesn’t help the enforcer or you.
- In advance of the interview, be sure your client has not destroyed or tried to hide any materials or potentially relevant documents. Be sure your client has not discussed the investigation with anybody besides lawyers. Coordinating “stories” with friends/colleagues is not okay.
- Aggression is unnecessary. Communications among the lawyers should remain cordial. We’ve never seen aggression or hostility go well. In particular, insulting the government’s investigation is not a good idea. The enforcer believes she is investigating for a good reason.
- Give your client consistent reminders. Remind your client what she needs to do to maintain the attorney/client privilege and not to do anything that might make her situation worse (destroying evidence/coordinating her story with others). For example, after a government interview, remind your client that everything that was asked and said should be kept confidential.
Clients under investigation can find themselves in a number of highly nuanced situations that require lawyers with specialized experience handling government investigations. The stakes can be high even for investigations that appear to be very focused on a short time frame or on a small-revenue product or service. If you’re being interviewed by the government, even informally, you need to be prepared by a lawyer who has done this before. Everything said to a government enforcer counts. Reach out if you need help.