BlogLegal ResourcesLawyers Must be Honest but, They Don’t Have to be Truthful 

September 10, 20210

Matthew Frederick has written a series of seven books on ‘’101 Things I Learned in’’ about different schools/professions, including law school. This blog is inspired by his book ‘’101 Things I Learned in Law School’’ written in collaboration with the attorney, Vibeke Noorgard Martin. 

The second lesson states ‘’Lawyers must be honest, but they don’t have to be truthful. Honest and truthfulness are not the same thing. Being honest means not telling lies. Being truthful means actively making known all the full truth of a matter. Lawyers must be honest, but they do not have to be truthful. A criminal defense lawyer for example, in zealously defending a client, has no obligation to actively present the truth. Counsel may not deliberately mislead the court, but has no obligation to tell the defendant’s whole story.’’

Putting it simply, if someone says something knowing it is not true, they are lying. However, if someone says something without knowing that it is not true, they are being honest. In such a sense, an attorney may be honest without telling the truth. A witness on the other hand has to state nothing but the whole truth. Let’s suppose that in a situation someone turns a blind eye to the whole truth and tells only their own version of the truth. This is considered acting like an attorney, not a witness. 

The public’s perception of lawyers is that they are dishonest. However, the public’s dissatisfaction with lawyers is based on the lack of understanding of what lawyers do and why they do it. On the other hand, this perception of the public cannot be dismissed. The reality is that there are many lawyers who are rightly seen as dishonest. Many of them want to justify dishonest conduct by portraying it as ‘’zealous advocacy’’. Every lawyer should understand that practicing according to the law means obeying the rules of professional conduct and other norms which govern the work of lawyers. These rules of conduct exist to implement  professional integrity and the element of honesty into the lawyer profession. 


If honesty is about not telling lies and misleading the court, what would truthfulness be?

Suppose that after examining the full case of a client, an attorney finds that it is a good one in law but in some minor details, the client has committed a wrong. Is it the duty of the attorney to refuse handling the case because the client has committed one minor mistake, while he is entitled to justice considering the most important facts of the case? 

The attorney, of course, knows the whole truth but he is not obliged to bring up the minor mistake of his client but rather focus on representing the client by building a strong defense using the facts of the case which have caused injustice for his/her client. The same idea would apply if an attorney learns new information which the opponent does not know. Knowing such information would change the aspect of the case and make it impossible for his/her client to win. Is the attorney morally bound to point out the defect in his/her case? 

For instance, if during the trial, an attorney is asked to state the whole case because his/her strict sense of morals does not allow him/her to conceal any information deemed unjust. Would his/her client be able to trust the attorney with future cases? Would other people present at court hire him/her in the future if they ever were to become parties? Surely, he/she would be avoided by any client. 

The answer is: No lawyer, while asking the judgement of the court on the legal aspect of the case, cites precedents which would favor the opposing party, unless he/she cites them only for the purpose of refuting them. Moreover, lawyers don’t comment favorably on evidence which is contrary to his/her client, no matter how trustworthy it may be. If the lawyer has information which would make the opponent win, he/she should be the last person to disclose that information.  

In conclusion, honesty and truthfulness are two different things when it comes to the profession of an attorney. An attorney must be honest, not warp the truth, and act according to the rules of conduct in order to exhibit justice. However, no attorney is obliged to tell the whole truth. He/she is bound to the best interest of the client.

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