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All content by Kyle E. Mitchell, who is not your lawyer.

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Zelensky Compound NDAthe mystery of the ritual runs deeper than law

From a recent Time piece on the day-to-day life of Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, under siege:

Other people volunteered to live in the bunkers of the presidential compound. Serhiy Leshchenko, a prominent journalist and lawmaker, arrived a few days after the invasion to help the team counter Russian disinformation. He had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, forbidding him from sharing any details about the bunker’s design, location, or amenities. All its inhabitants are bound by this pledge of secrecy. They are not even allowed to talk about the food they eat down there.

Simon Shuster, “Inside Zelensky’s World”, Time, April 28, 2022

I hate nondisclosure agreements. I rant and rave against them. I lead two projects to standardize them, so at least they waste less of my time. I think they’re often overused. I think they’re often overkill.

There’s no denying their ubiquity. And with eyes truly open, there’s no denying a fundamental reason for it, either. I’d almost rather believe they’re just some legal habit, some long debased, hidebound tradition lumbering on by sheer, unexamined momentum. Let us lawyers be guilty, and let us repent. But that is also pretending. Pretending the reason nondisclosure matters is really a legal reason at all.

Trust is a beautiful thing. But it’s rare, fragile, and it takes time to build. Where all the trust we need does not exist, but has to, we’ve fashioned social tools that bridge. The NDA is one of them.

Nondisclosure agreements communicate that it is time to take what we learn and who we share it with seriously. They mark a break with the usual ebb and flow and social life. The ritual of signature—much diluted when “signing” online—inveighs a sense of solemnity. Setting down terms stiffens the mood.

And of course nondisclosure agreements also invoke accountability. When we fail, we’re called to account for our promises, our awareness of expectations, memorialized in written form. And those writings can be passed on to courts and judges to enforce, should it come to that. But lawsuit is at best a vague threat for most people, most of the time. It’s remote from our everyday experience. We understand promises quite directly. We understand reputation. We understand secrecy.

We used to swear before the Gods. May they strike me down! Now we promise before the courts. But we’ve always mostly feared consequences from our fellow man.

I don’t know who would enforce the NDAs for Zelensky’s bunker, should loose or treasonous lips give him away. Any perpetrator may well pass with their comrades, under the same fateful bomb, eating the same fateful salo. Presumably, no one without credibility even gets as far as the NDA. But I understand its purpose. It’s beyond my jurisdiction.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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