The withholding of information can occasionally lead to that cringe-inducing moment at trial in which you are caught completely off-guard by something the government’s witness says on the stand. Although I always tried my best to maintain my poker face when this happened, I could feel my client squirming in the seat next to me. And it often led to an angry exchange afterward: Really? You didn’t think that was something I might want to know? The defendant was usually sheepish about this. I don’t know, one of them might say. I thought you would try harder if you thought I was innocent.
To withhold information is to deceive. Sometimes it’s by omission, as Jamison notes, and other times it’s by commission, where the client will tell you something, with his sincere eyes looking at you for belief, that is just an outright lie.
There’s a spiel I tell clients, that they don’t want their lawyer to be the stupidest guy in the room, and if everyone else in the room knows something I don’t know, or knows something different than I do, I’m that stupidest guy.
“Do you really want me to be the stupidest guy in the room?”
“Do you really want me to be unable to defend you because I don’t have a critical piece of information?”
“Do you understand that by lying to me, you take away my ability to do my best for you?”
“Have you told me any lies? Have you left anything out that I need to know?”
And sometimes, they’re lying through their teeth. I tell the client, “I’m going to believe you, because it’s your life, and if you lied to me, you’re the guy who will pay for it. I go home either way.” And still they lie.
I tell clients that I couldn’t care less if they did it or not. Every competent criminal defense lawyer feels the same way. If anything, we prefer guilty clients to innocent; they know more about what happened and are far better equipped to help us to be effective. But we take our clients as they come.
Sophisticated clients get this. Unsophisticated clients do not. As Jamison says:
I thought you would try harder if you thought I was innocent.
A good lawyer will do everything within his power, within the scope of the law, to win the case.
But the nature of the relationship changes when a client lies to his lawyer. No lawyer wants to walk into court to be the stupidest person in the room. No lawyer wants to lose because his client, genius that he is, has tried to game him because the client thinks that’s going to somehow help his cause. Once you’re a liar, you’re a liar. I can’t trust you.
It’s not that we stop trying to do our job, but that you have removed yourself from the mix of things upon which we can rely. The next time you give me that puppy-dog-eyes-look, I’m not going to give a damn. If I can’t believe you, then you’ve reduced yourself to a warm body in the chair and nothing more. Don’t beg me to care deeply about you.
The only person who can make the client cease to matter is the client. What comes of it is somewhat harder to appreciate than the straightforward “it’s all about the client.” It’s still about the client, in the sense that there is only one goal. That never changes.
But there is a holistic aspect of what every criminal defense lawyers does, whether they admit it or not, where the client is a human being to us while he’s nothing more than the warm body seated in the defendant’s chair to everyone else. To his lawyer, the client matters as a human being apart from his mattering as a defendant. That’s the part at stake when the client lies.
We don’t have to love you. We don’t have to like you. We have to represent you zealously. But if the client tries very hard, he can make us dislike him, even despise him. No, this doesn’t alter the duty undertaken when we accept your representation, but it surely affects the relationship between lawyer and client. Now, you’re just a client.
Jamie offers one explanation for this phenomenon, “I thought you would try harder if you thought I was innocent,” but there are others. Some clients say, “I was embarrassed.” Some say, “I didn’t realize that it mattered.” Once in a while, a client claims they forgot. After all, it’s hard to remember that you pulled the trigger. Or confessed.
Some prefer to embellish their stories by emphasizing the things they think show their innocence. Some tell you all the things they believe the cops did wrong, or their legal analysis of the situation, omitting the details of their own conduct that don’t serve their ends as well. Their purpose is to persuade the lawyer, without realizing that it’s not their lawyer who needs persuading.
Ironically, every effort to control the lawyer by controlling the flow of information serves to make the lawyer’s job more difficult, if not impossible. Of all the arrows in the lawyer’s quiver, the most important one is knowledge. Without a clear and accurate understanding of what he’s to defend against, the lawyer cannot do his job. At least not well.
Not only does lying to your lawyer undermine the personal relationship that clients, and their lawyers, desperately need, but it leaves your lawyer as the stupidest guy in the room. No one wants to be made a fool when he’s proven to be the courtroom idiot. This isn’t a problem that ever has to happen. The solution is easy. Don’t play your lawyer. Don’t lie to your lawyer. Don’t make your lawyer look like a fool. Just tell him the truth.