Do You Have a Duty to Disclose that You Are a Hatemongering Racist?

A3P_johnson

Let’s say you are a lawyer who happens to be a white supremacist who wants to revoke the citizenship of all non-whites and deport them. Like oh, say, William Daniel Johnson. Would you sign up for your state’s lawyer referral service? And if you did, would you feel the need to mention your white supremacist views to your clients? How about the non-white ones?

That’s what one non-white Redditor who got Johnson as a referral from the LA County Bar Association is wondering. And he is being told (correctly as a matter of professional ethics) that a lawyer’s personal views, odious though we may find them, do not necessarily make him unfit to represent someone. The more important question, I think, is whether a lawyer with these sort of extremist views ought to disclose those views to a potential client.

I think so.

Here, I think, is a rule to practice by: If you believe your clients would care about something — in other words, if you think it would make a difference in their decision to hire you — you should tell them about it. That goes for law school graduation dates as well as your brilliant plan to deport the majority of the U.S. population.

This rule is not just for hatemongering racists. It goes for lack of experience, too. New lawyers are especially afraid nobody will hire them due to their lack of experience. It is not true, of course. Most people don’t care, but they still want to know about it. A couple of years ago, I switched from suing debt collectors to representing tech startups. I educated myself as well as I could, and found several mentors, but I still had little or no experience with business matters. Because I thought this would be important information for my clients to have, I told them.

Here’s how that conversation usually went:

Me: I want to be completely up-front with you. I have never drafted an employment agreement before. If you want a lawyer with a lot of experience to do it, I can probably help you find one. Otherwise, I would really like to take your case, because I plan to draft a lot of employment agreements in the future, and I need to start somewhere.

Client: Okay, if you think you can handle it, I will hire you.

Me: I am confident I can put together an employment agreement that suits your needs, in particular because I have already spoken to a lawyer I am friends with who has agreed to review it before I hand it over to you.

Client: That’s good enough for me. Where do I sign?

It works similarly if you just graduated from law school. Chances are good it will not go as smoothly if you hold extremist views.

Is my rule a slippery slope? Should Republicans feel the need to disclose their party affiliation to clients who are Democrats? Should cat people disclose their preference to dog owners?

No, unless they have a reason to believe that information would be important to the client. I think these situations are usually pretty obvious. When they aren’t, I think lawyers are generally qualified to make a judgment call. When in doubt, disclose.

In particular, if you hold extremist views that would upset a majority of the population, disclose them to your client and let him or her decide.

  • Astraea_M

    On the one hand, I agree that you should inform your clients about anything they might find problematic.

    On the other hand, this is just going to encourage racism and sexism by clients. For example, I have encountered clients who did not want to work with an African-American attorney because “she just wouldn’t understand such complex issues.” Should we really disclose that the attorney in question is female and non-white?

  • Bob Stiller

    Lawyers have no need to share personal facts with potential clients. Everyone has ideas that would be offensive to someone. You would give a future dissatisfied client an excuse to challenge your loyalty, competence or effort. This would lead to more grievances, fee disputes and public complaints. No one expects a doctor, grocery store or gas station to tell them their political or other views, lawyers are no different.

  • Phillip

    Unless a potential client requires such personal information, keep it and zip it. A client is only looking for the to represent, point

  • Ronnie

    I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. I’m African-American and female; if someone dislikes working with me because they feel that I won’t understand the complexity of an issue, they won’t hire me. I don’t feel the need to disclose that (and really, it’s pretty obvious from my website). But I also don’t think that it has any bearing on my belief of whether or not I can handle the situation appropriately. If I, as some colleagues I know, feel that people shouldn’t be permitted to divorce simply because they no longer wish to be married, then I think that this bears on my ability to diligently represent someone. If I were to go to Mr. Johnson, I think I’d like to know that he would like to promptly deport me at the first opportunity, then I think that might have a bearing on legal strategy, tactics, etc. I think there is a very wide line between what would matter and what would not, and I think that, by and large, attorneys should be able to determine when something of that nature might matter.

  • Dennis

    How far would this go? At times I have found myself wondering whether lawyers who have political positions favorable to increased business taxes and increased business regulation have a conflict in representing business clients who seek relief from regulatory or tax burdens. Can one, practically and realistically, hold such political positions and yet have the appropriate zeal to fully represent the client?

    I am not talking about some ideal here, but reality.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      First, I am not arguing for an ethical rule. I am arguing for good sense.

      If you represent a client who wants relief from a tax you support, how do you think that client will feel if they discover your position? Wouldn’t it be better to bring it up early on. This does not have to be a formal disclosure, just a simple conversation about your views. “Look, I don’t think exceptions like this ought to be granted as a matter of policy, but I am willing to try to get an exception in your case. I would like to represent you, if you are okay with that.”

      Otherwise, wouldn’t you think the client will feel deceived if they find out? Are they likely to recommend you to a friend or family member?

      I think good sense dictates that you don’t hide things from your clients if they would want to know about them.

  • Monica Sandler

    The more of you I read Sam, the more I like your style!

  • http://www.towerofivory.net Lukasz Gos

    There’s a bunch of things you can weave into your bio or even your services offer, practice description, case portfolio and so on, so that it’s unmistakably there but without the awkwardness of piling caveats that might produce some negativity (fear, anxiety) by their very existence even when they are not relevant, or exaggerate the relevance beyond what’s real. Example: you don’t mention your political affiliation as one of the bio variables just because your feelings about it are stronger than average. Instead you can list your affiliation with the Republican Dog Owners Association somewhere or put a party function on your résumé. Your memberships list could be another such medium for stuff you’d rather disclose but don’t need to do so in the form of a grave, somber formal announcement. The employment agreement conversation was class act, by the way, very impressive.

  • http://www.BetterNoahLawyer.com BetterNoahLawyer

    I represent people accused of crimes. While I am personally against crime, that belief has never interfered with my ability to represent clients to the full extent of my abilities. No client has ever accused me of my personal feelings on crime interfering with my ability to give quality representation.

    The RPCs in this state put those conflicts in the domain of the attorney. If the client can’t be represented appropriately for whatever reason, the attorney should decline or discontinue representation. Pre-representation exposition seems unnecessary and counterproductive. I don’t agree that not disclosing something equals deception.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Yes, but would your clients think it is deceptive to hide something they would like to know? (I think it is fair to assume your clients don’t assume you support more crime, though.)