How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving!
That may be a joke, but many believe it. They believe that lawyers will do or say anything that will help their client win.
That belief leads to today’s question for the 2-Minute Lawyer: Can lawyers lie in court? Stated another way, is it ethical for a lawyer to lie in court if s/he believes it is in their client’s best interests?
Short answer: No, a lawyer cannot lie in court. S/he cannot lie to the judge or the jury, or knowingly allow the client to lie. And, if a lawyer becomes a witness for any reason, s/he must testify honestly, just as any witness must.
But . . .
However, in real life, because of competing ethical obligations, it is not always easy for a lawyer to determine what s/he can say and not say on behalf of a client. Let me explain.
The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct state that a lawyer “shall not knowingly make a false statement of material fact.” In other words, lawyers aren’t supposed to lie – and they can be disciplined or even disbarred for lying.
But notice that word “knowingly.” That can get tricky.
Lawyers cannot advocate facts that they know are not true. And they cannot allow clients to testify falsely.
If a client comes into a lawyer’s office and says “It’s not true, but I’m going to testify that . . .,” the lawyer cannot let the client testify to the false information and cannot represent the false information as true. That is because the lawyer “knows” the information is false.
But lawyers are also ethically required to represent their clients “zealously.”
If a client comes into a lawyer’s office and says that s/he wants to testify to a version of facts that sounds unlikely to the lawyer, but the lawyer has no evidence it is incorrect, the lawyer is obligated to present that client’s version of the facts.
Although the lawyer may be highly suspicious that the client’s version is not true, the lawyer does not “know” it is false.
That does not mean, by the way, that the lawyer cannot try to convince the client to not testify to the suspicious version of the facts. But if the client insists on testifying, the lawyer must present the testimony and advocate the client’s version of the facts.
So, in summary, a lawyer cannot lie but must zealously advocate a client’s version of facts unless the lawyer knows that version is not true.
**These questions and answers are designed to provide helpful information that can be read quickly. They are neither a full explanation of the subject nor legal advice. To learn more, and to receive legal advice on which you can rely, contact me or another lawyer.