February 2, 2016
On Sunday, the CBS television show 60 Minutes (my favorite!) ran a two part segment entitled “Anonymous.” In those segments, hidden cameras were used to record consultations with New York lawyers, where the pretend client was seeking advice on laundering money. Surprisingly (at least to me), 15 of the 16 lawyers were willing, at a minimum, to entertain the idea of assisting the potential client, undoubtably influenced by the substantial amount of money involved. Only one lawyer terminated the consultation as soon as it became clear that the potential client was seeking assistance with illegal activity. At first, I thought maybe only low status lawyers were targeted, but soon one of the lawyers was identified as a recent (2013-14) president of the ABA. The ABA quickly issued a statement distancing itself from the lawyer’s conduct.
The story made me think about consultations which I have had where a client has suggested an illegal scheme. Contrary to what may be common perception, this infrequently occurs. Rather, it is far more common for potential clients to assure me of their intent to fully and fairly disclose everything.
Still, it has occurred that a potential client thinks that I will at least countenance an illegal scheme to hide assets and money. Those consultations tend to be very short, as I’m with the lawyer who terminated the consultation with the phony person seeking help with money laundering.
In most of these instances, I am able to convince a potential client not engage in such behavior – sometimes simply by telling him or her that the Commandment against “bearing false witness” does not contain an exception for divorce. Sometimes it is necessary to explain to the client the substantial risk if he or she is caught. Rarely – but it has happened – I have told a potential client to seek representation elsewhere.
There is a fine line between counseling a client as to what is in his or her best interests and committing fraud. But, there is, indeed, a line. Good lawyers – and I believe that most lawyers fall in this category – are careful to never cross it.