LawProse Lesson #190: Ethical communications. Never tell a lie.

LawProse Lesson #190: Ethical communications. Never tell a lie.

Ethical communications for lawyers: Never tell a lie. “He’s not in the office right now.” (Actually, he is.) “I’m not authorized to offer one penny more.” (Actually, she has authority to settle for quite a bit more than she’s saying.) Advice about lying is tricky. But it’s possible to carry on your professional life without either telling a lie or asking someone to lie for you. It’s a matter of adopting a certain (admirable) mindset and knowing how to answer in a sophisticated way that is always truthful. A lie has three basic forms. First, an outright lie can range from a simple, straightforward matter (saying “no” when the truth is “yes”) to more grandiose forms, known as “whoppers” (e.g., falsely claiming to be a Grammy-winning songwriter or the heir to an enormous fortune). Second the suggestio falsi is the knowing innuendo by which one leaves a definitely false impression (e.g., a series of fabricated statements suggesting that a corporate official makes money “on the side”—at work, mind you, but on the side—by corrupt means). Third, the suppressio veri is the tacit lie by which one witnesses another coming to a false conclusion, based on a misunderstanding, and passively allows the misimpression to persist in circumstances in which one might reasonably be expected to correct the misimpression (e.g., allowing the court to believe that a phone call was placed on June 21, a critical date, as opposed to July 21, the correct date). But what about white lies? Like so many ethical judgments, it’s situational. “Is Susan throwing a surprise party for me?” What to say? “I don’t know,” even though you know that Susan is—is a modest kind of suppressio veri. In law practice, the most usual cause for suppressio veri is the need for preserving client confidences. “Was your client at the house that evening?” Your client has already said that he was, and an affirmative answer is prejudicial to your client. If not under oath, you probably shouldn’t answer at all: “We’ll see how the record develops.” Or: “That’s for the fact-trier to determine.” If you’re under oath, it’s objectionable as calling for hearsay and for violating the attorney–client privilege. You generally shouldn’t have to answer. Beyond the practicalities of honesty, there’s an intangible benefit that’s truly priceless: a clear conscience. Telling the truth frees you of worry about being found out and sets you at ease with yourself.

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