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When Should A Lawyer Acknowledge a Client Is Wrong?

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 13, 2019 3:00 PM

Even when criminal defendants are guilty as sin, defense attorneys advise them to plead not guilty. Everybody knows that, and that's why laypeople hate lawyers.

Well, it's one of the reasons everyone hates lawyers; we don't have time to go into all the reasons. We're going to look at just one issue from the public's perspective - how attorneys say one thing even when everybody knows (or thinks they know) the truth.

That being said, sometimes, it's better to acknowledge that your client is wrong. And if your client is not on board with it, maybe it's time to get another client.

About Your Reputation

That's what happened to former White House counsel Don McGahn. During Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, McGahn says President Trump asked him to fire Mueller. Trump denies it. In the political crossfire, McGahn reportedly threatened to quit if Trump fired Mueller. The Atlantic reported it was about his reputation. "More than perhaps anyone else in the Trump White House, he's a longtime member, in good standing, of the Washington Republican establishment," Peter Beinart wrote.

After the Mueller report came out, Trump asked McGahn to say that request wasn't an obstruction of justice. McGahn reportedly refused. Trump denies it.

Since McGahn's departure, the Trump campaign has removed its business from the firm where he is a partner. That's a financial blow of about $5.5 million in legal fees, which the firm had earned since the start of the 2016 campaign. So it seems McGahn is looking for another client now. That's what happens sometimes when you acknowledge your client is wrong.

About Your Client

Not everybody gets to represent the White House. It's even more rare for a lawyer to represent a sitting president in a criminal proceeding. But the underlying issue is basically the same for all lawyers: should they say anything publicly about clients that do not square with public perception? In the contrarian culture of legal ethics, it must be so.

In the courtroom, attorneys must defend their clients zealously. They should never lie to the tribunal, but they must present facts that present their client in the most favorable light. Trial publicity rules extend that duty -- and then some -- to the court of public opinion.

If lawyers are vilified, eschewed, ostracized, or otherwise ignominiously mistreated, it's the price of being advocates who sometimes say too much. That's what happens when you defend guilty clients to the end. Unless, of course, they enter a guilty plea first.

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