The anticorruption world is abuzz with discussion of the Pandora Papers, a major leak of financial documents that exposed how wealthy elites, including various political leaders and shady businesspeople, conceal their assets. But alongside revelations about the illicit expenditures of the rich and powerful, reporting based on the Pandora Papers also highlighted the role that lawyers and law firms have played in facilitating these arrangements—many of which are technically legal, but at least some of which suggest possible money laundering or other illicit activities.
This is hardly the first time that concerns have been raised about attorneys’ involvement in money laundering. Indeed, such concerns have existed for years, and have been repeatedly emphasized by groups like the Financial Action Task Force, and a 2010 study found that lawyers played a facilitating role in 25% of surveyed money laundering cases in an American appeals court. But perhaps because of the Pandora Papers revelations, U.S. legislators finally appear to be taking the problem seriously. Within days of the Pandora Papers leak, Members of Congress introduced a bill called the ENABLERS Act, which would expand the scope of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) so that many of the BSA’s requirements, including the duty to file suspicious activity reports (SARs) with the Treasury Department and to implement anti-money laundering (AML) controls, would apply to a broader set of actors—including attorneys and law firms.
The American Bar Association (ABA), which has consistently resisted pretty much every effort to impose even modest AML requirements on the legal profession, has strenuously opposed this aspect of the ENABLERS Act. The ABA’s principal objection is that many BSA requirements—especially the requirement that covered entities file SARs with the government—conflict with the lawyer’s ethical duty of client confidentiality—the attorney’s obligation not to reveal information gained in the course of representing a client to outside parties, including the government, save in a very narrow set of circumstances. (The duty of confidentiality is related to, but distinct from, the attorney-client privilege, which prevents a lawyer from testifying against her client in court regarding private communications that the attorney had with the client in the course of the legal representation, or providing such communications in response to a discovery request. Some critics have also raised attorney-client privilege concerns about SAR filings.) The ABA and other commentators have argued that extending the BSA’s mandatory reporting requirement to attorneys, as the ENABLERS Act would do, compromises attorneys’ ability to guarantee confidentiality, and thereby discourages the full, frank communications between attorney and client that are essential for effective legal representation.
The ABA has a valid concern, but only to a point. A broad and unqualified extension of BSA reporting requirements to attorneys could indeed impinge on traditional and important principles of lawyer-client confidentiality. But this is not a reason to leave things as they are. Rather, the ENABLERS Act and its implementing regulations can and should draw more nuanced distinctions, imposing SAR and other AML requirements on lawyers when those lawyers are acting principally as financial advisors, but enabling lawyers to preserve client confidentiality—including with respect to suspicious transactions—when lawyers are providing more traditional legal representation, for instance in the context of litigation.