The Importance of Lawyerly Agnosticism

cc: Rudolf Vlček

cc: Rudolf Vlček

Recently Scott Greenfield wrote about David Aylor’s rather noisy departure from accused murderer, Michael Slager’s case. So much went wrong and was analyzed in the post. But there’s one piece of it that I want to emphasize here. Mr. Greenfield writes:

It’s hard to blame Aylor for being sucked in by Slager’s lie. Clients lie sometimes. And just as a more experienced lawyer might ask the client whether he really wants his lawyer to be the stupidest guy in the room, the less experienced lawyer might not question whether his client is being forthright. He may rely on his client’s denials. But then, he might also take those denials and do the one thing that commits them to posterity: shoot off his mouth.

When the New York Times broke the video, Aylor’s world spun on its axis. Two critical things happened simultaneously. The first was that Aylor realized that he had gone out on a limb for Slager, and the limb just broke.

Overall, I love representing clients. On most days, I love being a lawyer. I like winning cases, whether the “win” comes in the form of an acquittal, a dismissal, a reversal, or simple damage control. But I long ago took the advice of a colleague who is now on the bench.

As a young lawyer, I asked this older criminal defense lawyer how he handles situations where the client insists on knowing whether the lawyer believes the client’s story. That lawyer told me that he tells the client that he is completely “agnostic” about the truth of anything that anybody says in a case. He would tell his clients that he does not believe anybody. He doesn’t believe the client. He does not believe the cops. He does not believe the witnesses who claim that they have information. He enters the case with a neutral believe about everybody’s version of the events. He explained to the client that he was most effective by not getting attached to anybody’s version of the events, even the client’s.

I adopted this approach, and it has served me well. It has prevented me from saying things to a judge or opposing counsel that I may later regret (I haven’t been perfect on this point. And I have said things I regretted for other reasons from time to time). I have had the flexibility to change defenses as the discovery comes in and as my investigation has unfolded. I have been in a position to put the client on the stand one day or to refrain from doing so. And, there have been times when I have spared myself the embarrassment of making a really ridiculous declaration to a client that we both would have known was ridiculous.

Take this approach and you also avoid finding yourself where David Aylor found himself. In law, when dealing with the media, opposing counsel, or a judge, there is more danger in saying too much than there is in saying too little. Think of it like a reporter. Generally, reporters will not publish something unless they can get that fact from more than one source. This rule of thumb is perfect. Before telling judge at a bond hearing that your client has no arrests or prior felony convictions, ask the client for her criminal history. But also go the next step to obtain the client’s criminal history. Clients sometimes don’t know or don’t quite remember what their criminal history is. Never tell the media that your client will be vindicated. I assume that you already do not make promises like that to the client, right? Tell the media that you are going to work hard and complete your own investigation of the facts and that it is premature to comment on how this will all turn out. If you make a claim regarding a legal principle in court, have a highlighted case to show the judge.

You never have to extricate yourself from a limb that you never climb. And there is no reason to take what your client says and run with it. Mark Bennett wrote an excellent post about this business of clients who want you to believe them. His words are well worth repeating.

You have told me repeatedly that you are innocent. You don’t mean “legally innocent”—that is, unconvicted—but “factually innocent.” I don’t know whether you’re telling me the truth or not (people lie to me all the time), but please know that it doesn’t matter to me. It won’t decrease my fee, and it won’t make me do any better job.

You might wonder whether I believe your protestations of innocence. Don’t wonder. At this point, I listen without judgment. I neither believe nor (unless your story is bad to the point of incredibility) disbelieve. You don’t want a dumb lawyer, so if you are factually guilty, you don’t want a lawyer who is dumb enough to believe you when you lie to him. And you don’t want a lawyer who thinks it’s his job to judge you, so if you are factually innocent, you don’t want a lawyer who is judgmental enough to care.

Take my opinion for what it is. And there may be wildly successful lawyers who take a different approach. I am an agnostic when it comes to the facts (and also when it comes to what “the law” is). I tend to listen to all the facts without necessarily committing to any. As the case progresses, a theme or theory will emerge. I will do everything ethically within my power to see that my theory defeats the State’s. Which is why the classic cocktail party question that lawyers get “how can you defend the guilty?” is not a particularly interesting one. It isn’t interesting because it is the wrong question to ask an agnostic.

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