Why you should do your own legwork before putting your trust in a client

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I was raised to be a naive and trusting person. This is not a good mindset for a lawyer. People sometimes lie, and being cautiously skeptical is a good thing. Being lied to is unpleasant, but it is much worse when the liar is your client, because those lies might get you sanctioned or disbarred. So the first rule of good lawyering is: Don't trust your client until you know he or she is telling the truth. I'll tell you about one of my first clients, and you'll see why I made up my mind to become a skeptic instead of a believer.

It was my first year of practice in a large national firm. I had been allowed to prepare this client for his deposition and to defend the deposition.

Lawrence Turcot was a middleman for women's coats. He purchased coats from manufacturers and sold them to department stores. Turcot was being sued by one manufacturer for failure to pay for a shipment. His defense was that the coats were defective.

"They put the pockets in backward," Turcot told me. "No one's going to buy a coat with backward pockets."

Thinking I was being a diligent lawyer, I asked him to bring one of the defective coats to my office the morning of his deposition. He brought in a pink triangle coat with pockets that were, indeed, reversed—someone shaking hands with the wearer would be able to slip a hand in the pocket, but the wearer couldn't.

"I'm telling you," Turcot said, "no woman would wear this, and no department store will be able to sell it."

We went to opposing counsel's office for Turcot's deposition. Under oath, he said the same thing he told me: The coats were defective.

I'm sure you can see where this is going.

"These are meant to be raincoats, aren't they?" opposing counsel said.

"Yes," my client said.

"Isn't it true that the coat pockets were put in that way to keep rain out?"

Looking sheepish, my client admitted that was so.

I felt stupid, but the case settled, as it should have. I later found out that a senior partner knew the case was a lost cause, couldn't get the client to pay for the coats, and thought it would be good deposition experience for me since I couldn't screw it up.

The most important lesson I learned from that deposition was: Make sure you are prepared. Don't assume you can learn everything you need to know about the subject matter of the deposition, or indeed of the lawsuit, from your client. (Or even from a colleague, as it turns out. I should have asked the senior partner why he was letting a first-year lawyer defend the deposition of a client.)

Every jurisdiction has a form of Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which requires a lawyer's diligent investigation of what a client says: "By presenting to the court a pleading, written motion or other paper—whether by signing, filing, submitting or later advocating it—an attorney ... certifies that to the best of the person's knowledge, information and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances, … the factual contentions have evidentiary support."

Don't risk sanctions or embarrassment. Ask your client about "the facts." And then ask what your client expects the other side to say in defense. Then check it out for yourself, to the degree possible. The Internet is a fount of information. Don't blindly trust your client to tell you the truth—or at least not the whole truth. It pays to be a skeptic.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “The Lying Client: Why you should do your own legwork before putting your trust in a client.”

Janet S. Kole is a retired trial lawyer from Philadelphia and author of numerous books, including Pleading Your Case: Complaints and Responses, and the murder mystery Suggestion of Death.

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