The video clip from Anatomy of a Murder in which Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) meets with his client Lt. Frederic Manion (Ben Gazzara) and tells him the legal defenses to homicide before asking what happened is, of course, often used in legal ethics classes and at CLEs. (The value of the video is that we can see Biegler's body language cues, missing from the novel. We also get to see Lee Remick portray Mrs. Manion. )
Lawyers largely support Biegler and many law students do, too, though not as many.
Now comes Matter of Rios (Appellate Division, First Department, May 14, 2013). The two young lawyers charged with disciplinary violations had met in law school and after a few years, formed a practice. Their personal injury client told them that she had fallen on a sidewalk in front of a church. The lawyers located the church but the sidewalk was in good repair. However, the sidewalk across the street was cracked. The lawyers met with their client and explained
"the law, emphasizing that if she fell on the sidewalk abutting the church, she would have no viable claim for her injuries. However, they indicated that if she fell across the street on the driveway, she had a viable case against the owner of the abutting property. They then showed their client pictures of both the undamaged sidewalk abutting the church and of the badly cracked sidewalk/driveway across the street. Upon asking her where she fell, the client indicated that she had fallen on the sidewalk across the street from the church. Shortly thereafter, respondents notified both the owner of the home abutting the sidewalk/driveway across the street from the church and her insurance company of their client's accident. In June 2008, respondents commenced an action against the homeowner and pursued discovery."
So did the lawyers cross a line? In their favor, one might say they were only trying to ensure the client's accurate recollection. Perhaps given the trauma of the fall, she forget where she fell. They didn't ask her to lie. They told her which facts would support a case and which would not. Would that explanation have saved them?
This would have made for an interesting opinion except that the lawyers conceded that they intended by their conduct to influence the client to lie. The lawyers could not refuse to testify if called and they would have had to tell the truth if asked for their motive, but they had no duty to volunteer their motive. It would be interesting to know how it came to pass that their motive was conceded. But once it was, what could their defense lawyer have done to help them?
The court was therefore able to write:
"Here, based on the record, it is clear that respondents intentionally influenced their client to misrepresent the situs of her accident in order to pursue an action which they knew was fraudulent from its inception. Thereafter, respondents, with full knowledge that they were perpetrating a fraud, commenced an action against an innocent third party, filing papers, such as pleadings, containing misrepresentations with the court."
The lawyers were suspended for nine months.
What if the facts were different. What if the lawyers argued that their only objective was to ensure that the client correctly recalled the location of the fall and showed her the pictures of the two sidewalks to refresh her recollection?