When is it a good idea for a client to lie to his lawyer? Never. Of course, a lawyer is not allowed to seek testimony from a witness, including his own client, the lawyer knows is untruthful. When a client lies to his lawyer, the risk is the lawyer will learn it is a lie and then the client’s position in the case is endangered. Likewise, lawyers are not allowed to lead a witness to lie on the stand; that misbehavior is called “suborning perjury.” Thus, if a lawyer knows a witness (or a client) is lying about something, a lawyer is ethically bound not to seek that testimony during the hearing or trial.
Naturally, if a witness or a client tells a lawyer something that is not true, the lawyer may well not realize the lie (at least initially). But lies are not good things. We are taught as youngsters that honesty is the best policy and that lying is something no one should do, which is a good policy because lying often gets us in trouble. Nonetheless, some clients think that they can profit from it and will tell their own lawyers things that are simply false. I suppose sometimes people get away with lying, and sometimes it can lead to a winning verdict based on false testimony. But no one ever knows when the lie will lead to profit and when it will, instead, bring disaster.
The disastrous fallout from lies can come at any time, often when no recovery is possible. At the beginning of a case, good lawyers do their homework in the form of investigation into the client’s position. They review documents and talk to witnesses, including the client, in order to see how the case shapes up. At the outset of the engagement, the lawyer is evaluating the strength of the client’s case, looking to see what evidence supports the client’s position and what evidence is against it.
When the lawyer finds a document or talks to a witness and learns something that works against the client’s case, the wise lawyer must raise the issue with the client. After all, the client is the main one who can shed light on the discovery of things that do not mesh with the client’s case. Some things are so contrary to what the lawyer needs to prove that the lawyer has to be able to explain it away. For example, let’s say the client has told the lawyer that the person who sold him the car did not tell him that it had been in a serious accident before the sale. But let’s also say that the attorney for the seller of the car shows the client’s lawyer a document signed by the client acknowledging the disclosure of the accident. If the entire case is one of fraud based on the failure to disclose that fact, such a document likely could be the end of it.
Why do clients lie to their lawyers? Got me. I think sometimes the lie becomes real to the client, sometimes the client thinks that no one will ever learn the truth, sometimes people are just liars. But good lawyers will not go along with lies. Lies have a way of becoming problematic, usually at some terrible moment and in a most unpleasant way.
Recently, a young man told me he had not been served with a certain lawsuit, which meant that he had been denied due process in the getting of the judgment against him. These things do happen, and they are not so unusual that such a thing cannot be believed. Indeed, much earlier in my career another young man told me the same thing, and the documents and witnesses proved him to be truthful and I was able to deliver justice to his cause. But this more recent situation was not the same; the young man had, indeed, been served with the lawsuit and the truth of his false story was discovered before any lawyer wasted much time with him.
It is a good thing the truth was discovered before we moved along the litigation course. Not only would that have been a meritless case against the person who had followed the proper procedure, it would have been a costly error and the lawyer could be the one holding the bag.
People should not lie to their lawyers. It rarely turns out well. Lawyers have a right to expect their clients to be truthful in the tales they tell. And a lawyer might well be stuck in a terrible jam down the road if any important lies are required for victory. Also, although it may rarely happen, a person can be criminally prosecuted for testifying falsely under oath, and lying in order to provide proof in court can be very risky business. Truth is always the best policy.