It is simply too easy for lawyers to quickly lose credibility within the bar and before the judiciary. It seems we’ve already lost this battle with much of the public, but within the profession I like to think we begin our careers with an undeserved presumption that most of us (at least those without the last name “Madoff”) are straight shooters. This presumption should be nurtured and guarded for the gift it truly is.
A lawyer’s individual reputation for honesty is as important, if not more important, than his or her intelligence or skill set. Why? Most of us quickly learn that if we’re out of our comfort zone skill-wise, we have choices. We can involve another, more experienced practitioner. Or we can double up on our research until we completely understand an issue or area. Skills can be improved. The same is not true for reputation. Once our reputation for honesty is placed at risk, it is nearly impossible to fix.
The easiest way to lose credibility is almost too obvious to mention: to be untruthful, even about the most trivial detail. It’s not necessary to falsify documents or manufacture evidence; a lawyer’s reputation for honesty can be ruined simply by stretching the truth when “memorializing” a telephone conversation. We hang up, I read your letter, realize you’ve mischaracterized our discussion and from that point forward I don’t trust a word you say. Worse, when my law partner mentions ten years from now that he’s got a case against you, the first thought that comes to mind, which I surely share, is that you’re not to be trusted. And just like that, you’re no longer trusted.
Being untruthful with the court is even more dangerous. Setting aside the risks of sanctions, contempt, complaints to the state bar, etc., judges have institutional memory which can follow you your entire career. Just as I’ll tell my law partner that you can’t be trusted, judges do talk, and have lunch together and, I am informed, discuss their cases and the lawyers appearing before them. Let just one judge conclude that you are a lawyer capable of lying to the bench and that alone could devalue any statement you ever make in the same courthouse or even jurisdiction.
Many lawyers believe we only have our time and intelligence to sell on the open market. I would add that neither time nor intelligence have any value at all without a reputation for honesty. Once we lose the trust of our colleagues and judges, everything about the practice of law becomes more difficult, especially winning cases and getting referrals. Don’t risk it.