Disclosing privileged communications to third parties normally waives that fragile protection. But even without disclosure, clients relying on privileged communications or placing such communications "at issue" can also waive their privilege protection – sometimes in unpredictable situations.
In Jensen v. Charon Solutions, Inc., No. B276050, 2017 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 8683 (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 20, 2017), a successful malicious prosecution plaintiff recovered $400,000 in attorney's fees. The defendant appealed, claiming that the trial court erroneously allowed the plaintiff's lawyer to testify about the fees without producing his bills (except for the dates and amounts). Acknowledging that "descriptions of work redacted from the bills may well have been covered by the attorney-client privilege," the appellate court nevertheless reversed the fee award – holding that plaintiff had impliedly waived any privilege protection by seeking a fee award as damages. Id. at *28. As the court put it, "[t]he near-complete redaction was also fundamentally unfair because it precluded [defendants] from conducting any meaningful cross-examination of [plaintiff's] attorney." Id. at *29. The court remanded for a new hearing, "at which the privilege attaching to the attorney's bills has been waived." Id. at *32.
Courts take varying approaches to this issue. Among other things, some courts (1) allow lay or expert testimony alone to support litigants' fee claims; (2) allow limited redaction of specific privileged billing entries; (3) allow litigants to redact portions of bills, but then forego any fees for that work. In the most frighteningly extreme approach, one court held that a litigant seeking to make the adversary pay for the litigant's legal work must not only disclose the bills – but must also disclose the work itself.