Five Things Your Lawyer Can’t Do

This post is not intended as legal advice. Please read the Disclaimer posted above.

Lawyers get a bad rap. I’ve had the “lawyers and liars are the same thing” jab thrown at me before, and there’s no short supply of jokes painting lawyers as bad guys. Are there less-than-honest lawyers in the world? Sure–there are bad apples in any bunch. But day in and day out, I see dedicated, hardworking attorneys counseling clients to do the right thing and fighting for their clients’ rights in court.

Non-lawyers might be surprised to know that attorneys are governed by strict ethical rules, and violations of the rules are taken seriously. Attorneys and judges are encouraged to report violations to disciplinary boards, and investigations often lead to suspension of lawyers’ licenses to practice or disbarment.

Here are five things your lawyer can’t do:

1. Lie in court. Under ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 3.3(a)(1), a lawyer is prohibited from making a false statement to a judge or other tribunal. (Note: I’m referencing the Model Rules here because ethics rules vary slightly by state.) If the lawyer already said something that later turns out to be false, she must correct the misrepresentation. The lawyer’s duty of candor is not limited to factual statements, but extends to representations of the law as well. Model Rule 3.3(b) provides that if an attorney knows of controlling precedent that is contrary to the argument she is making, and opposing counsel has failed to alert the court to it, she must disclose that prior case to the court.

2. Allow a client or other witness to lie in court. An attorney can’t get around the “no lying” rule by having someone else do the lying. Rule 3.3 prohibits a lawyer from knowingly allowing a witness to offer false testimony or other evidence. This rule gets a little tricky in the context of criminal cases, as criminal defendants have a right to testify in their defense if they choose. If a criminal defendant insists on perjuring himself, his lawyer cannot participate in the perjury by asking questions of the client. Instead, the defendant will usually take the stand and testify in narrative form. Though not required, this situation sometimes leads the attorney to seek permission to withdraw as counsel.

3. Lie outside of court in the course of representing a client. Even when not in court, a lawyer can’t lie on a client’s behalf to get the client a better deal; that’s prohibited by Model Rule 4.1.

4. Hide evidence from the other side. Model Rule 3.4(a) bars a lawyer from obstructing an opponent’s access to evidence or telling another person to do so.

5. Ambulance chase. Lawyers are not permitted to visit, call, or communicate via live chat or text with any person for the purpose of soliciting their business. Thus, the old ambulance-chaser stereotype is prohibited. A lawyer can’t hang around hospitals or show up at accident scenes offering to represent people in distress. Ads, billboards, mailings, and other kinds of advertising are allowed, subject to certain restrictions.

Hopefully, these rules give you some peace of mind that the lawyers with whom you interact will be honest. If you encounter a lawyer doing one of these prohibited acts, you can make a complaint to the attorney disciplinary authority for the state in which the lawyer is licensed.

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