Lawyers, Truth, and Honesty in Representing Clients
Peter J. Henning
Wayne State University Law School
Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy, Vol. 20, May 2006
Wayne State University Law School Research Paper No. 07-04
To say that the rules governing lawyers do - or should - reflect a commitment to truth is a worthy goal, but it misapprehends how the professional standards should be applied. Many accuse lawyers of being liars with little devotion to the truth, while the law imposes on them a fiduciary obligation to put their clients' interests ahead of their own. References to "truth" tend to obfuscate rather then clarify the role of the lawyer. The core of the lawyer-client relationship is trust, protected by the attorney-client privilege that prevents an attorney from being compelled - with limited exceptions - to reveal what a client communicated in the course of the representation. That privilege, of course, frustrates the search for the truth because the lawyer ordinarily may not reveal what has been learned during the representation of the client, even after the client's death. Dedication to the truth cannot be the lawyer's paramount goal when every attorney is equally compelled to keep the truth hidden, at least if it is in the client's interest and there is no basis to avoid the protection afforded client communications.
Finding the truth is the object of the judicial system, but it is not the governing principle for the lawyer. Instead, the focus for the lawyer should be honesty in dealing with clients, opponents, and the system. The principle of honesty governs the attorney in all forms of representation, not just when he is acting on behalf of a client in the course of an adjudication. While truth and honesty are certainly related, they are not identical. In this article, I use honesty to cover assertions - both verbal and non-verbal - by the attorney on behalf of a client, such as expressions of fact, legal argument, or a negotiating position. While truth is focused more on determining the existence of an historical fact, honesty focuses on the accuracy and authenticity of the lawyer's current assertions on behalf of the client. An attorney's honesty will assist a tribunal in ascertaining the truth, yet that is not the core function of the lawyer acting on behalf of a client. Whenever a lawyer communicates, whether it is to the court, to an opposing party or attorney, or even to a client, that communication must be honest.
I do not offer honesty as a heretofore unrevealed agenda in the professional responsibility rules or as a curative measure for resolving every conflict among duties a lawyer can face in practice. Instead, the idea that lawyers must be honest when they offer information or take a position can provide a guide to understanding how to resolve some of the difficult issues in practicing law. Lawyers do not operate in a vacuum, and the professional responsibility rules and other guidelines that regulate attorneys provide only limited assistance in resolving difficult issues. The principle of honesty, rather than truth, can provide a further means, in addition to the lawyer's own ethical judgment, to accommodate the dual roles of the attorney as an advocate for a client and an officer of the court.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 71
Keywords: Lawyers, Truth, Honesty, Legal Ethics, Clients
JEL Classification: K40, K41, K42
Date posted: June 1, 2006