Journal of the Institute for the Study of Legal Ethics

Article Title

On Lying for Clients

Publication Date



I am happy I was given the privilege of meddling with impunity in other peoples affairs without really doing any harm by belonging to that avocation whose acolytes have been absolved in advance for holding justice above truth I have been denied the chance to destroy what I loved by touching it. - Gavin Stevens

"I'm interested in truth," the sheriff said.

"So am I," Uncle Gavin said. "It's so rare. But I am more interested in justice and human beings."

"Ain't truth and justice the same thing?" the sheriff said.

"Since when?" Uncle Gavin said. "In my time I have seen truth that was anything under the sun but just, and I have seen justice using tools and instruments I wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot fence rail .. "

"What book is that in?" [the sheriff said]....

"It's in all of them .... The good ones, I mean."

- William Faulkner

For all of his occasional resort to deceit and falsehood, Faulkner's county-seat, Southern-gentleman lawyer, Gavin Stevens, was a virtuous person, a good person, and a truthful person. He and other moral worthies in good stories-many of them lawyers-have something to contribute to discussions, in legal ethics, on the issue of lying for clients.

In negative terms, such American lawyer stories suggest a turn away from analysis of duty and consequence, of critical moments and "ethical dilemmas" and statements and dry rationality. Cleanth Brooks said of Faulkner's lawyer stories that it is the villains in them who are rational; "the good man," he said, "has to transcend his mere intellect with some flow of generosity and love."

What stories have to say about lying for clients seems useful just now, when the despairing suggestion in both popular discourse and learned discussion is that a person cannot practice law truthfully. "How do you tell when a lawyer is lying?" the joke asks. Answer: "When his lips are moving." The average American lies thirteen times a week; lawyers lie more often.

Grim jokes about dishonest lawyers are, of course, old stuff in American culture. What is new is the plea of guilty from academic lawyers who ponder the morals of law practice. Professor Lisa Lerman told us, five years ago, on what appeared to be a sound clinical basis, that we modem American lawyers routinely lie to our clients-to get business, to keep business, to make money. Her moral assessment was to disapprove of lying for "direct" gain but to tell us that we have to accept a certain amount of it as part of representing clients. Professor Carrie MenkelMeadow, also talking mostly about lying to clients, proposed what is in part a response to Professor Lerman's moral guideline: Don't lie if, in the circumstances, you would not want to be lied to, she said.



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