A Different Take On The Issue of Perjury

A strong editorial in the Wall Street Journal today by SNR Denton lawyer Matthew Lifflander discusses the economic impacts of lying, with a particular emphasis on perjury in court. I’m sure that, like any ethical issue, we all have different views on the importance of telling the truth and what would constitute a just and deterrent punishment for perjury.

I vividly recall being on vacation in Rome with a politically conservative close friend when the Republicans were all in a lather over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. I found it amusing that he was so indignant that our President would be caught blatantly red-handed lying about a blow job. On the other hand, what can we tell our children about the oath of perjury if our leader, our President, ignores it  with impunity?

As the title of his piece suggests, Mr. Lifflander comes at the issue of perjury from an economic, cost-benefit (what benefit? and to whom?) analysis. It’s no surprise to any litigator that the practice of committing perjury is alive and well in our system, whether the liars are alleged criminals, greedy plaintiffs or callous corporations and their executives.

What I like about the piece, however, is not the shift from a purely ethical to a hard-line economic analysis of lying. Mr. Lifflander does offer some compelling statistics about the cost of dishonesty. For example, he cites that, “[i]n 2011 NY City  paid $550 million in personal-injury and property-damage tort settlements and judgments . . . City lawyers have previously said that up to 10% of the claims . . . involve fraud or misrepresentation.” But, while compelling, these numbers don’t move me. I suspect this is because I’m still naive enough to believe one adheres to a policy of truth both (1) because any deviance from this policy threatens a reputation for honesty that I consider sacrosanct (I prefer not to do business with dishonest people), and (2) because it’s just the right thing to do.

Rather, what I like is that Mr. Lifflander offers suggestions on how to curb this rampant abuse. He endorses (1) creating a fund to pay for prosecution of perjurers (to be funded by small taxes on large personal injury judgments), (2) establishing a statutory civil tort to redress those who can prove they were victimized by perjury; and (3) a change to the law to authorize civil trial judges to punish perjurers through fines, sanctions or reductions in judgment.

I would throw out the first two suggestions. I abhor new “taxes” of any kind, and I’m not clear why successful personal injury litigants should be taxed to pay for prosecution of perjurers. If a tax is needed to raise the funds, it should be levied on everyone–not just successful litigants. Establishment of another tort is not the answer, either. Must new lawsuits be spawned off of the wrongs perpetrated during other lawsuits? Do we really need litigation-about-litigation, meta-litigation?

I do, however, endorse Mr. Lifflander’s third proposal: to make it easier for a trial judge to punish instances in which perjury has obviously occurred. There is nothing more frustrating that showing a judge clear and convincing evidence that a litigant has blatantly lied to the court, only to have it ignored. I remember my frustration during one evidentiary hearing in which I held up a real estate document in which it was obvious that the defendant had forged my client’s initials on an arbitration provision (obvious because, next to it, I had a version of the document obtained by subpoena that did not contain her initials), and the judge glossed over the issue. Are you kidding me? I thought. What kind of judge are(n’t) you?

The problem I see, though, is not that judges lack the authority to punish liars, but that many (most?) judges can’t be bothered to do it. The solution is probably not more legislation, but a change in the way judges–those in whom we place our trust to enforce the laws against perjury–view the crime. I doubt much will change on this front, however, until the public takes the crime of perjury and its consequences, ethical or economic, more seriously.

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Learn One Thing From Every Lawyer You Meet

Experienced lawyers speak about trying to learn something from every case you handle. This is valuable advice, and something most of us probably do without really thinking about it. But I’ve found it more valuable and interesting to try to learn at least one thing each from at least most lawyers I come across in the course of my practice. In many ways our professional education only begins in earnest after we finish law school, pass the bar and start plying our trade. I was fortunate to have a great mentor during these formative first years, but I recognize the reality that not every new lawyer is going to bond with a mentor.

In an odd way, however, every lawyer we encounter in our practice can act as a mentor of sorts and, if we’re perceptive, can open our eyes and help shape us into better lawyers. Let me offer a couple of illustrations. Let’s first take a positive example. Some years back, my partner and I defended a catastrophic product liability case against an older aviation lawyer. This guy, who is now retired, was quite literally a trial legend. He was sharper in his early 80s than most of us at our peak. Our case together resolved pretty early on, but I still had an opportunity to share an almost empty courtroom with him one morning while we waited for our judge to rule in chambers on an ex parte application.

What did I take away from the experience? Probably more than I realize, but what struck me at the time, and has stuck with me since, was the way in which he interacted with the courtroom clerk and bailiff. We’ve all seen how lawyers parade into courts and treat the courtroom staff with . . . let’s call it indifference, or sometimes worse. We litigators often see clerks and bailiffs as impediments to what we’re trying to accomplish. I know at my worst moments I’ve done it. But I saw how my opponent’s manner was different. When he spoke with the clerk and bailiff he engaged them. From his attention and questions, it was obvious he had a genuine interest in their backgrounds, their interests and families. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine he would take a similar interest during voir dire in the prospective jurors who would decide his client’s case.

We all know people who are have this kind interpersonal curiosity—they’re often very successful, as politicians, leaders—or trial lawyers. Why are they so successful? Because being interested—genuinely interested—is the first step in creating a bond, which involves trust. And the ability to garner trust can be among a trial lawyer’s greatest strengths.

Not every lawyer we encounter is worthy of emulation, and that can be a valuable learning experience, too. And we don’t learn only from seasoned lawyers, newbies who have a trait or style can help shape us, if we’re paying attention. In particular I’m thinking of a young associate I came up against a while back. I previously wrote about this guy. On the surface, he had a lot going for him. He seemed intelligent, charming and had scored a job working for an LA-based “Nader Raider” automotive product liability lawyer who boasted a string of six and seven-figure trial verdicts.

It wasn’t too long, however, before it became clear to everyone on our side of the fence that this associate had something of a . . . reckless relationship with the truth. Not only did he make calculated and blatant misrepresentations to our judge, but every telephone call or conversation with him was followed by a letter purportedly “confirming” several things that were either not discussed or never agreed upon. From this lawyer I learned how precious is a lawyer’s reputation for honesty. It is an undeserved gift; one that we must never squander.

Sometimes the way an opponent practices forces us to confront our intuitions about whether something is ethical or appropriate. We learn from this, too. For example, I am presently litigating a civil case against a pretty seasoned lawyer who spent the first half of his 35+ years practicing criminal law. There are numerous “independent” witnesses in our case—witnesses who would not be expected to have any inherent bias in favor of one side or the other. We’ve just wrapped up a long string of depositions, including several such independent witnesses. During these depositions, it has become clear that my opponent has gone out and met in person with every single witness in anticipation of their deposition. In some cases he literally spent hours with them preparing for their deposition.

Undoubtedly, readers will have different views on whether this is appropriate. There is another party in our case and its lawyers are adamant that our opponent’s behavior is the worst kind of slimy. And I’ll admit that my initial reaction was not positive. But after serious reflection, I’ve come around to think it’s not necessarily inappropriate, and could in fact be a prudent thing to do in some circumstances. It obviously leaves the witnesses somewhat vulnerable to cross-examination (“Now, how long did you spend with Mr. So & So preparing for your deposition today?”). On the other hand, my opponent knew before we went on the record what the witness was planning to say, and he could tailor his examination to capitalize on positive aspects, while anticipating and diffusing negative testimony.

I realized, too, that while this kind of interaction with independent witnesses might seem unusual in civil litigation (it is more common to interview witnesses through the medium of a third-party investigator), it is the most natural thing in the world in criminal law, where my opponent cut his teeth. After all, depositions and other prior testimony are rarely available in criminal trials; an interview is often the only way to know what a witness will say before he/she takes the stand. So, while I try to learn something (or a bunch of things) from every case, I also make it a point to try to keep my eyes open and learn something from every lawyer I’m up against.

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Lawyers Being Honest, Even (Especially) When It’s Against Our Own Interests?

Colleagues criticize me because, when pitching to handle a case, I don’t “sell myself” enough.  It’s not just that I don’t sell my own experience or skills well enough, but also that I sometimes don’t paint an overly optimistic picture of the case.  What it’s going to cost.  How we’re virtually guaranteed a great outcome.

These may be valid criticisms, but I’ve always preferred the notion of being conservative about the expected outcome of a case.  I also never want to be accused, at the end of a case, of having misrepresented what it will likely cost to get the desired result.  I’ll admit such honesty has probably cost me business.

It turns out, though, that such honesty may be the very best thing when vying for the role of the trusted advisor.  At a recent conference, I learned that, based on comments gathered from general counsel at major corporations, the perception that an outside lawyer was being honest, potentially against his/her own interests, was actually a relationship “accelerator.”

So, when do opportunities arise for outside counsel to “accelerate” their client relationship through honesty at any cost?  Here are just a few:

1.  “I might not be the best lawyer for this particular case (or deal),” and I know that means you may not hire me.

2.  “I want to make sure you have a realistic idea what this is going to cost,” even though you might decide then not to sue or to settle instead.

3. “Your chances of winning are probably not going to improve by doing this additional discovery,” even though a scorched earth approach is vastly more profitable for me.

In addition to sleeping better at night, an incidental benefit of this kind of honesty is that, while I might not be the perfect lawyer for this particular case, or you decide not to sue this time, I know you are going to trust my judgment.  That’s really what I want, to be the trusted advisor, so you’ll think of me next time, and the time after that.

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Five Secrets To Gaining Client Trust: #1 Be Honest

Ok.  Since trust and honesty go hand-in-hand, this seems pretty obvious and not such a “secret,” right?  The problem is, I’m not referring in this post to the “Don’t-Commingle-Client-Funds-With-Your-Own-Money,” or “Don’t-Say-You’re-Licensed-To-Practice-Law-When-You-Were-Recently-Disbarred” brand of honesty.  Anyone who is a prospective or existing client assumes you’re licensed to practice and not going to commingle funds.  It’s not an opportunity to gain trust.

When I speak of honesty as an opportunity to gain trust, I’m referring to the candor that comes into play when lawyers pitch to get a client or to get a case, and the temptation arises to be overly optimistic.  For example, do you ever find yourself making statements like this: “There’s a good chance we’ll win!”  Or, “Don’t worry it won’t cost much.”  Or, “There’s a good chance we’ll win and don’t worry it won’t cost much!”

I’ve been criticized by colleagues because I’m not much of a salesman.  I try not to oversell myself as some kind of miracle-worker, and I don’t oversell a case, even if it’s a good one.  After all, every piece of litigation carries risks for both sides, particularly if it’s ultimately arbitrated or tried.

I’m not much on puffing.  But I do try to provide a candid assessment of the risks, strengths and weaknesses of a case.  I do this at the outset.  And then I try to do it as the case progresses.  I like to reassess at critical junctures.  A juncture can be critical because it represents a strategic turning point; more often, however, the opportunity (or obligation) to reassess arises because we are about to invest heavily in the case.  These junctures are typically: (1) before filing the action, (2) before undertaking discovery, (3) before escalating discovery or initiating depositions, (4) before filing or responding to a dispositive motion, (5) before a mediation or other serious settlement negotiation, or (6) before commencing final trial preparation (when things tend to get really costly!).

I’ll admit that complete honesty about the risks of a case and/or the potential expense has led some prospective clients to look elsewhere.  I have had prospective clients pass after my “pitch” wasn’t as sugar-coated as they hoped, only to have them contact me later after the lawyer they ultimately hired disappointed them.  I have not, however, had a client complain at the end of a case because I didn’t make them aware of risks or candidly discuss potential costs.  This is the kind of honesty I believe builds a client’s trust in his or her lawyer.

Another potentially thorny area comes when clients look to us for immediate answers.  Sometimes, when an honest answer is “I don’t know,” we are tempted instead to punt.  With mixed results.  I prefer, and attempt to make it a practice, to be candid if I don’t immediately know the answer to a question, and promise to find out.  Even if it’s a question to which I feel I should know the answer, I remind myself that we’re all only human, and a delayed but absolutely correct answer is better than a prompt, but incorrect, one.

A final thought: sometimes the challenge in being honest about the risks or expense of a case comes, not from any intend to deceive, but from a failure to be completely honest with ourselves about the “warts” of a case or what it’s going to cost.  We want for the costs to be reasonable and the odds of winning to be strong.  We want it so badly that we lose touch with reality.  But, as counselors of law, part of what we’re hired to provide is a reasoned, objective evaluation of the merits of a position our client plans to take.  We can’t do that if we’re not honest with ourselves.

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Don’t Squander Your Unearned Reputation For Honesty

It is simply too easy for lawyers to quickly lose credibility within the bar and before the judiciary. It seems we’ve already lost this battle with much of the public, but within the profession I like to think we begin our careers with an undeserved presumption that most of us (at least those without the last name “Madoff”) are straight shooters. This presumption should be nurtured and guarded for the gift it truly is.

A lawyer’s individual reputation for honesty is as important, if not more important, than his or her intelligence or skill set.  Why? Most of us quickly learn that if we’re out of our comfort zone skill-wise, we have choices.  We can involve another, more experienced practitioner.  Or we can double up on our research until we completely understand an issue or area.  Skills can be improved.  The same is not true for reputation.  Once our reputation for honesty is placed at risk, it is nearly impossible to fix.

The easiest way to lose credibility is almost too obvious to mention: to be untruthful, even about the most trivial detail. It’s not necessary to falsify documents or manufacture evidence; a lawyer’s reputation for honesty can be ruined simply by stretching the truth when “memorializing” a telephone conversation. We hang up, I read your letter, realize you’ve mischaracterized our discussion and from that point forward I don’t trust a word you say. Worse, when my law partner mentions ten years from now that he’s got a case against you, the first thought that comes to mind, which I surely share, is that you’re not to be trusted. And just like that, you’re no longer trusted.

Being untruthful with the court is even more dangerous.  Setting aside the risks of sanctions, contempt, complaints to the state bar, etc., judges have institutional memory which can follow you your entire career.  Just as I’ll tell my law partner that you can’t be trusted, judges do talk, and have lunch together and, I am informed, discuss their cases and the lawyers appearing before them.  Let just one judge conclude that you are a lawyer capable of lying to the bench and that alone could devalue any statement you ever make in the same courthouse or even jurisdiction.

Many lawyers believe we only have our time and intelligence to sell on the open market.  I would add that neither time nor intelligence have any value at all without a reputation for honesty.  Once we lose the trust of our colleagues and judges, everything about the practice of law becomes more difficult, especially winning cases and getting referrals.  Don’t risk it.

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