Adjunct law professor and attorney Rose Safarian has a highly effective way of getting the attention of her students at San Joaquin College of Law in Fresno. "In my professional responsibility course, I tell the truth about what happens to lawyers who do not.
"Lawyers who lie do not end well. They get in trouble with the State Bar, often losing their license, frequently winding up bankrupt, family life in shambles and sometimes going to jail," she observes. "And often, they send their clients into a living nightmare.
"But it's the lawyers who play by the rules who have a long-term career, earning the respect of their clients, their colleagues, judges and their families. And playing by the rules means respecting the truth and absolutely never telling your clients to lie."
There is no room for lawyers who try to deceive
"An attorney is also considered as an officer of the court, taking an oath to support the laws of our country. As it is already hard enough to get to the truth in so many cases, there is no room in our legal system for lawyers who actively try to deceive. The legal system works well when we are all playing by the rules," she maintains.
"You cannot advise a client to commit a crime. You cannot ask or help a client to submit forms to an agency or the court which you know contain lies. You cannot participate in anything that causes the court to be deceived. Knowingly doing so subjects the client and attorney to criminal prosecution," she points out.
"It is so important to understand that when we say ‘the legal system,' we are looking at important relationships and jobs to be done by all those involved in it. Judges are relying on the lawyers who appear before them to be honest.
"What if the lawyer didn't tell the client to lie, but knows he will? Can the lawyer still allow the client to testify?" we asked.
"Let's say that the attorney didn't tell the client to lie, but knows he is going to lie. If you do this - if you put that person on the witness stand when you know they are going to lie - it is a violation of our rules of professional conduct. You cannot put on evidence that way. You cannot solicit testimony which you know is untrue," she stressed.
Lawyers are on trial with their clients
"Isn't there enormous pressure from some clients to simply win, by any means? We've all met attorneys who could care less about the truth or the facts, who twist and distort what really happened, encouraging their clients to do the same thing, especially in the areas of criminal and family law. Doesn't this influence how these lawyers are seen by judges and in turn, not be such a good thing for their clients?"
"Yes," Professor Safarian replied, "that pressure can be extreme, and some lawyers do have a reputation of playing loose with the facts, or not properly researching their material. When this is found out, tremendous harm can result to the client. The reality is that both client and lawyer are on trial together - and word spreads," she cautioned.
"I tell my students the one thing you have to consider is your reputation and credibility is going to help you be successful in this profession. Other lawyers and judges quickly learn who can be trusted to give honest, truthful information, and has sound, reasoned arguments.
"I've seen where a judge was on the fence, and seemed to go one way, because of past experience with a particular lawyer. I got the sense that lawyer's credibility or lack of it influenced the decision," she stated.
"It's really so simple. If a lawyer sticks to the facts, is known for telling the truth to other lawyers and judges, all of this benefits the client."
Our rules require honesty
"You don't steal from your client, you don't disclose your clients confidences unnecessarily and you don't lie. Our rules of professional conduct require honesty. If you respect these rules - and the legal system - you will probably have a pretty good career as a lawyer," is what I tell our students.
"While we all want to win, we need to win for the right reason, not because we have played a role in manufacturing evidence or helping clients abuse the legal system.
"Never forget that on a daily basis judges are listening to people, taking testimony and evaluating if people are lying to them. You do not help your client, nor yourself, by helping them to lie," Professor Safarian concluded.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to him at (661) 323-7993 or emailed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.