Lawyer, n. A Liar with a Roving Commission

Photo by  Melinda Gimpel  on  Unsplash
Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. Matthew 5:37 (NIV)
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. Proverbs 15:4
A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapour and a deadly snare. Proverbs 21:6
Liar, n. A lawyer with a roving commission. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.
It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to: (c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. . . Rule 8.4 ABA Rules of Professional Conduct

In the movie Liar, Liar Jim Carey plays the role of a lawyer who is temporarily trapped by an affliction that prevents him for a whole day from lying.  Life gets difficult and humorous, as he seeks to perform his usual lawyer duties, but now with this serious impediment.

While the movie hopes to be humorous, the underlying message might be taken by us more seriously.  The movie can only “work” if we start with the assumption that lawyers in fact have a difficult time being truthful – and are often indirectly, if not directly, engaged in deception, obfuscation, and sometimes, flat out lying.

Of course there are the professional “justifications” for this – but there are usually not very satisfying except within the legal subculture.  The truth-problems are by no means confined to the criminal law context. Truth-telling seems just as critical an element in discovery in civil matters, in negotiations and in business planning.

Our Lord’s command in Matthew 5:37 seems even tougher, however, for it envisions not simply lying – but invites an openness and transparency that would make many lawyers and clients shudder.  Lawyers who are wordsmiths, might manage to avoid the “bald-faced” flat-out, lollapaloser of a lie – finding some technical “truthfulness” (while of course thoroughly intending to convey the lie and get away with it).  But this matter of deception is something else. My goodness, how could you negotiate, deal with discovery and vigorously defend your clients if you couldn’t do a little deceiving now and then.

So it has been essential to “justify” this common “yea” not meaning “yea” at all.  Lawyers are well trained to summon defenses (in the alternative mind you). First, deception is sometimes defended on the “greater good” theory.  Our goal is a “fair” and “just” settlement, and a bit of deception along the way will more likely produce that goal.

Then, second, there is the, “it wasn’t me, it was my client” defense, which has the ominous echoes of a defense used in the God v. Adam case in the Eden court.

Or consider, third, the “waiver” theory of lawyer lying.  It suggests that lawyer lying is OK because everyone knows about it – no one thinks the lawyer is really telling the truth.  It’s like playing a card game – poker perhaps — hiding the cards and making people think something that is not true, is true, is the “game.”  So all you moralists, bug off. Of course we’re lying, but it’s like the Cretans – we all lie, and everyone knows it, so no one is really confused at all.  No one believes us. NO HARM NO FOUL.

Or, the best defense of all – sort of a jurisdictional defense – is simply to suggest that all these truth-telling notions don’t apply in lawyer-land.  Different rules govern there, foreign jurisdiction you know – and all you critics just don’t understand because you’re not from “there.” After all, the world of lawyers is a world where ordinary human (and divine) rules don’t “work” and are “inoperative.”

But “what do ye more than these,” must be the question if our law practice moralities are mere reflections of conventional legal custom.  If we are representatives of kingdom living, of transformed lives and models of transformed cultures, then truth-telling might well be part of that “turning the world upside down” that Christians were accused of in the first century.

Maybe lawyer truth-telling might lead to some really radical results – like client truth-telling, judges who could trust what lawyers told them, or even an occasional outbreak of actual justice.

Lynn R. Buzzard, Week 15:  Liar, in WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE OF YOU? 38-39 (L. Buzzard ed.1997).

Used with permission of the publisher, Advocates International.