The Liars’ Economy

When a person follows me on twitter, I get an email informing me because twitter believes it’s important that I know. Rather than insult twitter, I recently decided to open the email and look at their bio. More than half of the time, it informs me that the person is either an “expert” or a “consultant” who is “passionate” about whatever makes them money.  I have no clue who the person is, but they want to let others know they’re special.

We used to call this sort of conduct “shameless.”

A legal marketer whose name eludes me recently wrote that we have a duty to be shameless; “if you don’t tell them, how will they know?”  Another  marketer posted what appears to be a missive under the title, “my meeting with the secretary of state.”  After some routine puffery, it turns out that the “headline” was a lie, that he tried to meet the secretary of state, but was turned away. His point was about boldness.  He shows “chutzpah.”

The  New York Times ran a story about retailers paying kickbacks to consumers if they wrote positive reviews of their wares.

Some exalt themselves by anonymously posting their own laudatory reviews. Now there is an even simpler approach: offering a refund to customers in exchange for a write-up.

By the time VIP Deals ended its rebate on late last month, its leather case for the Kindle Fire was receiving the sort of acclaim once reserved for the likes of Kim Jong-il. Hundreds of reviewers proclaimed the case a marvel, a delight, exactly what they needed to achieve bliss. And definitely worth five stars.

In Ottawa, Rogers Communications seeks to strike a law, requiring companies to perform “adequate and proper” tests in advance of advertising claims about the performance of a product, as a violation of free expression.  It argues that the marketing claims may be absolutely true, but the requirement that they be tested in advance so that they are proven accurate before being disseminated, rather than tested only after being challenged, inhibits freedom.  

Walter Olson at Cato writes about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s war against the things he believes to be unhealthy.

But as the New York Times reports, city officials “did not let on that the man shown — whose photo came from a company that supplies stock images to advertising firms and others — was not an amputee and may not have had diabetes.” Instead, they just Photoshopped his leg off, which certainly got the effect they were looking for, albeit at the cost of photographic reality. At an agency developing an ad campaign for a private company, someone might have advised adding a little fine print taking note that the picture was of a model and had been altered, lest the manipulation turn into the story itself, or even attract the interest of federal truth-in-advertising regulators. But the Bloomberg crew probably isn’t worried about the latter, given that their constant stream of hectic propaganda is fueled by generous grants from the federal government itself. Such grants also helped enable a contemplated booze crackdown exposed by the New York Post this month—quickly backed off from after a public outcry—that would have sought to reduce the number of establishments selling alcohol in New York City.

People seem to believe the advertisements without much thought, assuming that the correlation/causation problem must be proven somewhere or they wouldn’t say it.

Inexplicably, people still believe that if it’s in writing, if it’s put out publicly, it must be true.  Surely, if it was false, there is some back office somewhere filled with busy elves who would squash it immediately.  People aren’t allowed to lie, right?  It would be scandalous if anyone could say anything to deceive others without recourse.

But there is no back office somewhere filled with busy elves overseeing the accuracy of claims.  The mechanism that prevented an economy built on rampant falsehoods and puffery was the fear of being outed as a shameless liar.  The mechanism existed within us, as the chance of anyone else calling us out was slim, and only the slightest possibility of being held up for ridicule as a liar was more than sufficient to push the reluctant liar over the edge of truthfulness.

No longer.  Shameless is the new Bold.  Freed of the constraints of honesty, we rationalize our conduct to justify doing anything it takes to achieve our goals. 

One of the premier justifications for the ubiquitous consumer reviews on the internet, whether of lawyers on Avvo or a tchotchke on Amazon, is that it enlightens others. This is only true if they are accurate and honest, but this naive claim was swiftly undermined by those who game the system.  We are simultaneously gullible in believing that the information we receive about others is at least reasonably accurate, while pumping out as much puffery as possible about ourselves.  All without the slightest bit of shame.

We buy from the best liar, whether it’s a gadget case, a refrigerator or a lawyer.  It’s not really that hard to distinguish the self-aggrandizing liar, yet we can’t seem to help ourselves from being attracted to shiny objects and important people.

As despicable as it may be to learn that we’ve been lied to after buying as thing based on sham reviews, that this same shamelessness has permeated the legal profession is different. Integrity is all we’ve got, the only justification for our monopoly on the trust given us by clients. 

But, you say, everyone else is puffing, lying, scheming and scamming, while you sit there waiting for the phone to ring, with bills to pay and hungry children at home.  You say that it takes too long to establish a reputation as a skilled and respected advocate, so you have to create it yourself.  You say that creating a few “facts” and omitting a few others can turn you into a rock star.  You say the other lawyers are liars, so why should you suffer. 

Everyone is a liar today.  That’s the nature of our economy. That’s the nature of our profession.

Not everyone. Granted, it seems that way.  Granted, it seems as if the liars are winning the battle, and leaving the honest in the dust. It seems as if no one is terribly bothered by an economy built on lying to each other, as long as we get a piece of the pie for ourselves.  There are some of us who won’t play this game, and you quietly watch as others studiously ignore us, circumvent us, lies about us and put on their play as if we didn’t exist.

But we see you.  We see what you are saying and doing.  We see that you proclaim yourself an “expert” when you’re not. We see that you puff your greatness and have your cousin write a false review to bolster your lie.  So what if everyone else is lying through their teeth to make a buck?  We’re lawyers, and our duty is different than the purveyor of shiny toys or government intent on death to sugary drinks and second hand smoke.  What you are selling is your integrity, and you are selling it cheap.

Have you no shame?

9 comments on “The Liars’ Economy

  1. Anon

    And what’s your solution? Stare at a silent phone, filled with self-righteousness, while somebody else gets the cases and makes the money? Great idea.

  2. SHG

    The options have crystalized. Lie for a buck and the next guy will lie bigger. Everybody can’t on the first page of Google. Claim to be the best lawyer ever, or guarantee to win every case, and the next guy will do the same, but for half the price.  Maybe your “silent phone” will ring for a week, or a month, but it will stop again when the next lawyer comes up with a better lie. What will you do then?  Try integrity? Too late. It’s gone.

    We are in an unsustainable situation as the race for the bottom is on, with the marketing of the practice of law built on a house of cards, a foundation of lies.  Is there a lie so big, so bold, that it will bring you the wealth you want to the exclusion of the other liars?

    What will you do when the lies fail to pan out, when you don’t win the case or can’t do the work for the pittance charged?  What will you tell the client who demands his money back guarantee?  More lies?  More excuses? Will you be forced to raid the escrow account to refund monies as clients threaten to break your legs?

    The other option is the return and perpetuation of a culture within the legal profession that rejects shamelessness and rewards integrity and competence.  No, it doesn’t guarantee your phone will ring or you will be able to feed your hungry children.  Maybe you aren’t a very good lawyer.  Maybe the guy across town is a better lawyer. But at least no one will want to break your legs, and you won’t have to decide when you dress for work which hotpants to wear.

    There is no assurance you will find wealth and prestige by being a lawyer.  There never was.  Even being a shameless liar won’t guarantee you success, but it will assure that your integrity is lost.  The options aren’t wonderful, but they are clear. When you grew up, did you dream of being a lawyer or a liar?

  3. BL1Y

    Sam: It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

    Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

    Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

  4. Chris Tozzo

    In the 1980s, models started adding clauses in their contracts stating their pictures could not be used for AIDS PSAs either at all or unless a disclaimer was added, “Model portrayed does not have HIV.”

  5. Anne

    If “shameless is the new bold,” then “self-promotion is the new civility.” Every social media outlet, from twitter to picnics, are now fair playgrounds for self-promotion. We recently left an elementary school where parents, many of them professionals, were encouraged to advertise their services. The more families get to know one another, the more they do business together, the more positive (?) experience they have with the school — or so the marketing experts (who were also parents!) told the school. Even though I’m somewhat guilty of this myself, it is tiring. I cut some people slack — if you’re self-employed, your livelihood might depend on self-promotion. But there is a cost.

  6. SHG

    I’m not sure I would call it the “new civility,” but rather the new sociability, where our every social interaction hides a commercial transaction behind it.  After all, why bother to be nice to people just because you happen to like them, or share mutual interests, when there’s a possibility you can make a buck off them instead.

  7. Anne

    But, the proliferation of it makes me think it is more OK than I normally would. Your comments section asks for my website — so, OK, I put the link in. (btw I am not making much money from it — about $40 in 4 years!) Or, people hawk to me, so I think well, maybe I will hawk back — this person, after all, won’t mind so much. I seem to know many self-employed people these days, and this is one way they try to stay afloat. Yes it is annoying…hmmm. Well, just my thoughts.

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