When is it acceptable to lie to your attorney? Are some circumstances too embarrassing to reveal to your lawyer? When can a client embellish information about the opposing party or situations? I suspect many reading this will scoff at the idea that a client would pay a lawyer perhaps thousands of dollars to handle a legal matter and then fail to be truthful to the lawyer. Telling the truth to your counsel seems like a no-brainer, but many, many clients lie to their attorneys.
It seems obvious, but tell your lawyer the truth. When she asks you if you have a mistress, do not lie and say you don’t when you actually do. When your lawyer asks if you have any secret bank accounts, tell him the truth about the secret stash you have in another bank. When asked if you can pass a drug test, if you just smoked something illegal yesterday, tell him “nope,” and explain why. Of course, if you really do not have a paramour or secret bank accounts, and you don’t use drugs, feel free to say so. But if you have damaging information about yourself, you need to tell the truth about it to your lawyer who will work to mitigate the damage.
For example, I recently had a client’s custody case disintegrate when the judge asked my client “If I were to order you to take a drug test today, would you pass it?” Suddenly, my client wanted to speak with me privately. You guessed it. It was “only some weed” the client had smoked just the previous day! Of course before the hearing my client was adamant about being “completely clean.” What could I or any lawyer do at that point? The client’s case was severely damaged. I knew it, the other side knew it, and the judge knew it. My strategy would have been different had I known the facts.
The Whole Truth
Do not hide pertinent facts from your lawyer. Your lawyer needs to know the WHOLE truth. Do not leave out details. If you don’t know if some tidbit of information is relevant to your case, ask your lawyer if it matters rather than hiding it from her. Your lawyer can only work with the information she has. Failing to disclose information you think is trivial, embarrassing, or potentially damaging to your case could be devastating in court when the facts come out for the world to see.
For example, I recently wrapped up a divorce that had been going on for almost two years. After the final trial we became aware the wife owned another house her lawyer did not even know about. So we went back to court. In the new hearing, the wife explained she thought the house was her separate property so she just didn’t mention it. Maybe her lawyer could have protected the house for her during the divorce, but instead he was as surprised as I was about the secret house, and my client gets half of it.
Nothing But The Truth
Do not embellish facts to your lawyer. The facts are sufficient. Adding to the story is a waste of time and money, and can hurt your case. Do not make allegations about the other party that you think are possible, or even likely, but about which you do not have actual proof. Clearly if you know your child’s other parent has used drugs in the past, you should tell your lawyer, but do not falsely make the other parent out to be a drug-crazed serial murderer to your lawyer. Likewise if your ex got a DWI years ago, tell your lawyer, but do not represent your ex as a falling down, unemployable drunk when you know that is untrue. The judge will see right away that your case isn’t an emergency, and may not even be valid. When you lose credibility with the judge, your case is going to be severely damaged.
As always, this essay is educational in nature, and is not intended as a substitute for competent legal representation. If you are facing a legal obstacle, I recommend you seek competent legal representation. And when you do retain a lawyer for your matter, tell him or her the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about your situation. Honesty is the best policy. Seriously. Your lawyer cannot change the facts of your case. Your lawyer can only mitigate the damage caused by the facts or address the weaknesses of your case effectively if you are honest.
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