Imagine a sexual harassment EEOC charge which alleges that a corporate executive displayed pornographic images on his computer to a female subordinate. You interview the executive, in addition to everyone else at the company who could have seen the images; everyone denies they existed. In fact, the executive has a plausible explanation. The charging party is a disgruntled, terminated employee who may have accidentally received an email forward of a dirty joke, and is now exaggerating that one isolated incident to extort money through a bogus claim. You have no reason to disbelieve this executive and everyone else at the company. You respond accordingly in the company’s position statement to the EEOC, which finds no probable cause.
Flash forward six months. The lawyer for the ex-employee (now a plaintiff) is deposing the same executive. Her lawyer marks your position statement as Exhibit 1, and the executive re-affirms his story. Her lawyer then marks as Exhibit 2 the discovery responses in which the company denied that any pornographic photos existed, and the executive again re-affirms his story. When her lawyer marks a manila envelope as Exhibit 3, you start to feel a pit in your stomach. When the executive opens the envelope and reveals a half-dozen pornographic photos, the pit moves up into your throat. When you realize that the photos are of the same executive cavorting with two women—whom he identifies as “escorts”—you just about throw up. And the case settles for much more than it was worth.
I often relay this story to clients from whom I think I may not be getting the whole story. I remind them that whatever they tell me is privileged. I tell them that they might think they are protecting their company, but in this age of email, and Facebook, and computer forensics, it is likely, if not certain, that the truth will eventually come out. I explain that when it does, the liability risk, potential verdict amount, and the value of any settlement goes up exponentially.
The word “candor” is one of the the most important words to lawyers. It’s in our ethical rules—attorneys owe a duty of candor to the tribunal. Almost as important, however, is the candor between a lawyer and client. We owe you a responsibility to be completely honest with you about your case and the risks it presents. We cannot do that, however, without your reciprocal honesty about the facts. It’s our job to tell your most compelling story. We cannot do that, though, if we don’t know what that story truly is.