In this fifth post, inspired from Justice Carole Curtis’s Dealing with the Difficult Client (written when she was a lawyer), we take a look at how to handle the dishonest client. There are different degrees to which a client can be dishonest. On one end are clients who may tell half-truths or who conceal facts from you, and on the other are clients who maliciously lie to you. It isn’t often clear whether the intention is malicious or if the untold truth can come back to hurt you or your client at a later date.
Outright lies can be a good reason to terminate the relationship. It may signal a lack of trust between you and the client that cannot be repaired. If you make misrepresentations on behalf your client, the danger arises if you knew or should have known about the misrepresentation. A client that is lying may be using you for malicious reasons – avoid this client at all costs.
That said, there are sometimes excusable reasons a client can lie. A personal injury client may not recall his or her previous injuries very well. A small incident leading to pain and a visit to the family doctor can be forgotten years down the line if it resolved quickly. Similar seemingly innocuous incidents can easily be forgotten or re-interpreted as time goes on. For this reason, it is important in such files to order medical records (the third most common source of malpractice claims in civil litigation, and over all practice areas, is inadequate investigation).
Once obtained, meet with the client, go over your notes documenting what your client told you, and review with the client the medical record which contradicts the client’s account. These kinds of lies are not necessarily malicious and may simply indicate that the client needs to be sure about certain aspects of the file, and that words should be more carefully chosen (“That has never happened to me” vs. “If it happened, it’s been rare”.
Another reason a client may be unwilling to tell you everything is cultural. If the client comes from a culture where encounters with lawyers and “the system” are negative, the client may see you more as an obstacle and necessary evil than as someone who is there to help. The client may think there is something to hide, when in fact it is better to disclose to you. In this case it may take time to build trust, and patience may be rewarded.