Why are US lawyers allowed to lie while negotiating?

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Robert Angyal SC and Nicholas Saady

The late William Rehnquist, when Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, gave many speeches at law schools. For a while, to lighten the tone, he started each speech with a ‘lawyer joke’.

Example: What is the difference between a bad lawyer and a good lawyer? Answer: A bad lawyer makes a case drag on for years. A good lawyer makes it last even longer. Example: What looks good on a lawyer? Answer:  A Doberman.

But Rehnquist abandoned his practice when he discovered two things: First, the lawyers in the audience did not think the jokes were funny. Second, the non-lawyers in the audience did not realise they were jokes.[1]

Rehnquist’s discoveries illustrate a problem for the U.S. legal profession: Public distrust.  A 2020 Gallup poll found that only 3% of people surveyed found lawyers’ honesty and ethics to be “very high”, and only 18% found them to be “high”.[2] This public distrust is a perennial source of concern to the national legal body, the American Bar Association.  Its journal regularly features articles such as “What can lawyers do to combat their bad PR?”, which suggests that “carefully executed social media presences” can “build trust, erasing one lawyer joke at a time”.[3]

Rather than carefully curating  lawyers’ social media profiles, we suggest that a better approach to building public trust in lawyers would be revocation of  the American Bar Association rule that allows lawyers to lie when negotiating.  Yes, astonishingly, a disciplinary rule promulgated by the ABA (Model Rule 4.1(a)) allows lawyers to lie about non-material facts when negotiating on behalf of a client.

The very existence of that rule seems problematic. When you look at its legal meaning (or lack of), it becomes even more problematic.  Despite several attempts to define and limit the circumstances in which the rule allows US lawyers to lie, its meaning remains unclear.

One such attempt was a formal ABA ethics opinion, five single-spaced pages long, with 22 footnotes.[4] (The irony inherent in issuing an “ethics” opinion defining when lawyers can legally tell lies apparently was lost on the ABA.)  The perceived need for such a detailed guide to interpreting a one-sentence rule was itself an acknowledgment of the difficulty of interpreting it. We analyse the ABA’s opinion in a just-published law review article and conclude that it contains no coherent statement of principle and leaves the reader no wiser about what the rule means. Other attempts have been similarly futile — even failing to clarify the meaning of the most basic concept on which the rule is predicated: The distinction between material and non-material facts.

The justification for allowing US lawyers to lie about non-material facts seems to be that the recipients of the lies will not be harmed by them — because they will not rely on them, or not regard them as communicating facts. But if legally permissible false statements are trivialised to this extent, why bother making them? Better to tell the truth all the time and gain a reputation for trustworthiness.  On the other hand, if more substantive false statements are allowed by the rule, how can it possibly be justified?

This, we conclude, is an inescapable dilemma generated by a rule permitting lawyers to tell lies. The dilemma explains why all attempts to date to explain the meaning of the rule have failed.  It also explains why any further attempts would be equally futile.

Allowing lawyers to lie affects the image of the profession detrimentally and intensifies public distrust of it. It does enormous damage to the credibility and the moral authority of lawyers. It is damaging in another way also. If you know that the lawyer for your opponent is allowed to legally lie to you during a mediation in some, undefined, circumstances, the only prudent thing to do is to assume they are lying all the time and to disbelieve everything they tell you. So the rule not only generates public mistrust of lawyers, but also makes negotiations highly inefficient, because the parties cannot take anything they are told at face value.

The good news is that there is a straightforward solution to the problems raised in this post: Require lawyers to tell the truth, all the time (which is the position in Australia).  Rather than advocating PR to improve the public image of lawyers, the ABA should heal this self-inflicted wound by revoking Model Rule 4.1(a).

Robert Angyal SC is an Australian barrister and mediator and was admitted in the District of Columbia for 40 years. Nicholas Saady is a New York and Australian lawyer and mediator. Their law review article “Legal Lying? Comparatively Analyzing US and Australian Lawyers’ Obligations of Truthfulness in Mediation” has just been published in [2021] 21 Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal 355 (Issue 2).

[1] Marc Galanter, Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes & Legal Culture (The University of Wisconsin Press 2006) at p. 3.

[2] Gallup, “Honesty/Ethics in Professions | Gallup Historical Trends” (2020) https://news.gallup.com/poll/1654/honesty-ethics-professions.aspx.

[3] Danielle Braff, “What can lawyers to combat their bad PR?”, ABA Journal (February 1, 2020) https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/many-people-ignore-their-legal-needs-because-they-dont-trust-attorneys-what-can-lawyers-do-to-combat-their-bad-pr.

[4] ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, “Obligation of Truthfulness in Negotiation and Mediation”, Formal Opinion 06-439 (2006).