Friday, August 22, 2008

Why Do Attorneys Lie?

That headline sounds like the opening to a great lawyer joke, but it's not. I came across this article in which the author asks a psychiatrist why attorneys tell obvious, blatant lies?

Well, I'm no psychiatrist, but I would put being a mother up there in the expert category (not to mention having been a teenager). My experience is that people lie for two reasons: they think they can't get caught and/or they are more afraid of the truth.

The story spends a lot of time discussing the first reason for lying, but also throws in the competitiveness of the adversarial system as an explanation for lawyers lying.

Richard Ratner, a board-certified psychiatrist since 1973, has many lawyers as patients in his clinical work and also serves as a forensic psychiatrist in bar disciplinary cases and other types of litigation. He says a lot of "psychopathology" takes place in litigation, for a variety of reasons.

First, he notes that lawyers, generally, and litigators, in particular, tend to "have generous helpings of narcissism," which he says can be both good and bad. Narcissistic people, he states, "want to go out of their way to shine and make themselves look terrific." This is a good thing to the extent it motivates them to work hard and be prepared.

The problem, he says, comes when you put such people in the crucible of litigation, which after all is a competition with winners and losers. He says that this competition aspect creates a polarization of issues and, for narcissistic people, places their fragile egos directly onto center stage.

Ratner explains that extremely narcissistic people are so "needy for the affirmation of success," that the idea of losing is seen as unbearable. They will therefore use the psychological defenses of "rationalization" and "denial" to enable themselves to intentionally mislead -- and even lie -- if they believe that is the only way to win.

Ratner states that as a result of this rationalization and denial, they do not see themselves as having done anything wrong. Instead, they see themselves as justified , because they were acting for a "higher purpose." He explains that the power of rationalization can be enormous. It can even be seen in such horribly extreme examples as when the killing of innocent civilians by terrorists is seen as "heroic."

My ex-husband has used an attorney I affectionately call The Barracuda for litigation concerning our daughter. I've been shocked at the extent to which this attorney will twist facts and outright lie to the court in an attempt to win. Particularly in family law, where the parties are expected to cooperate and deal with each other after the litigation dust settles, this seems like a very shortsighted strategy. Yet her only goal is to win at all costs, collect her fee, and move on. The aftermath has been that my ex spent thousands of dollars for temporary results, as our child has vacillated about who she wants to be with. But the damage to our relationship, the relationship of her parents to each other, has been permanent.

There were two reasons I decided not to go into law. The first concerned the long, long hours required of most attorneys in the field. I didn't want to have someone else raising my children for me, who were 10, 2, and 5 months when I graduated (yes, I had two children in law school, which is why I always find it amusing when certain liberals want to tell me that I just wasn't "smart enough" to make it. Try studying Constitutional Law and breastfeeding at the same time, pal, then get back to me about being "smart enough"). But the second reason was that I was disgusted by the behavior I saw encouraged by faculty and attorneys when dealing with the law. There's a reason attorneys are required to take a course called "Professional Responsibility." The expectations of clients and other attorneys can and do cause people to behave in unseemly ways.

To put it another way, I didn't like the way I saw many attorneys behave and I didn't want to become like them.

In the years since that decision, I've kept up with several of my friends from law school. Most are successful in the field, but also disappointed with the realities of practice. One friend has handled family law (as I had wanted to), and she confided to me that her attitude towards some potential clients had changed since she had had a child. She understood why I was so outraged and disgusted at the lengths some people go to to win in the family wars.

I think that frequently, in our winner-take-all world, people are willing to forgive lying as, somehow, just another tactic in a war. It just depends on what the definition of "is" is. But the truth is that lying has consequences for clients and attorneys. Clients can be cheated by a rigged system, and attorneys find a little of their souls dying every time they open their mouths.