An Attorney On Truth And Honesty

Matthew Frederick has a series of seven books titled 101 Things I Learned in (Architecture | Business | Culinary | Engineering | Fashion | Film | Law) School. They are self-described as “lessons and insights to orient the newcomer and inspire the experienced practitioner.” In each book, Frederick teams up with an expert practitioner to document 101 important ideas about the topic.

Inspired by years of legal thrillers, I decided to read the law school version co-written with California-based attorney Vibeke Norgaard Martin. While the book is over 200 pages long, the writing style and illustrations make for a quick read (check out a sample).

The armchair attorney in me enjoyed the book immensely. After years of crime dramas, I always thought lawyers needed something stronger than circumstantial evidence to convict. However there’s a passage which shows circumstance evidence can be “more damning than direct evidence.” I also enjoyed the section on how a hostile witness can make a case. There’s plenty in this book that’s both informative and entertaining.

This passage on the difference between truth and honesty made me think:

Lawyers must be honest, but they don’t have to be truthful. Honesty 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.

In the U.S. legal system, a witness has to tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” but apparently an attorney does not.

How does this apply to the rest of us? If someone knowingly says something that isn’t true, they are telling a lie. But if they unknowingly say something that isn’t true, they are being honest. This suggests you can be honest without telling the truth.

It’s a fine line which makes me a bit uneasy. Someone could turn a blind eye to the whole truth and stick with their own version. That’s acting like an attorney rather than a witness.

What do you think?

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One Response to An Attorney On Truth And Honesty

  1. Patti Fletcher February 29, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    In Making a Murderer and in Serial we can see this topic play out on both sides – prosecution and defense. Are lawyers marketers who orchestrate the conversation that they want the judge, jury, and/or public to focus using both honesty and selective truths? Yup. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t. Convincing someone to think a certain way (either validating their thinking or moving to a new status quo) by enabling them to do so through storytelling means certain facts will be selected while others will not. There is more at stake when lives or big money are included for sure. Would full disclosure change the courtroom game? It would if everyone were truthful and honest.

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