The Go-Go’s in their 1981 hit song Our Lips Are Sealed sang that they had no secrets to reveal. How lucky for them. The rest of us in society encounter secrets in a multitude of circumstances. We are taught from a young age that disclosing secrets is not only bad for the person whose secret we keep but equally for the one disclosing. In a society and profession where reputation is key, being trustworthy can either make you or break you.
When and if secrets are revealed typically depends on the parties in the know. In a professional context, it is dictated by terms a client has agreed to. However, in a solicitor-client relationship, clients have a heightened underlying expectation that their lawyers will keep their lips sealed. Societal trust and reputation are key to building a more positive representation of the legal profession.
Divulging personal and private information may be difficult, even when the purpose is to get aid from a legal professional. Although clients may expect full cooperation from lawyers, they face competing representations of the legal profession that may leave them feeling uncomfortable in disclosing their matter.
A client whose disclosure is curtailed due to unease may present a lawyer with more difficulty in adequately representing their needs and interests. Can the legal profession identify whose fault this is? Should we blame the client whose attitude towards the profession is based on the reputation that lawyers themselves depict? Or should we instead be thinking about how to quash societal distrust and build towards a cultural understanding and confidence of lawyers as ethical professionals?
In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes described a society where lives were solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. The every man for themselves, gaining advantage by any means possible, leaves society at a loss. The democratic world we live in, however, is made up of rules we adhere to that set a barometer of conduct expected. In Ontario, the Law Society’s rules dealing with confidentiality require a lawyer to hold all information concerning the business and affairs of a client in strict confidence unless authorized by the client or required by law to do so. Legal ramifications are in place to punish lawyers whose bahviour falls outside this standard, however societal distrust in the profession is still prevalent.
Perhaps we can point fingers to the ‘bad apples’ that draw media attention and have the most impact on tainting people’s beliefs of the profession. Or we can acknowledge that there may be good intentioned professionals who may not be aware that their behaviour is unethical.
Retaining a celebrity client or taking on a dramatic case can tempt one to disclose even the smallest fact. Perhaps lawyers may think that a casual ‘water-cooler’ or elevator conversation, even with colleagues, is not a breach of confidentiality. One may rationalize disclosure by believing the person they disclosed information to will keep tight-lipped, or is a trustworthy friend or spouse who has no connection to the client. Whether engaging in gossip is intentional or unintentional, its effects can become devastating to the profession and a lawyer’s reputation.
Society’s attitude towards the profession is not only influenced by the cultural depictions seen and heard of, but also by one-on-one interactions with lawyers. In fact, these depictions can often be conflicting, where people can have a sense of distrust towards the profession but find their lawyer is the exception and not the rule.
Building a good reputation not only contributes to a more positive outlook of the profession, but also helps a lawyer economically. When people are satisfied with a service, word of mouth is a powerful form of advertising. A client’s satisfaction may be a result of a successful case or a belief that their lawyer was loyal and did all they could to protect their interests above all others. Where a client can be assured that they can share information that will be received non-judgmentally and kept secret, it fosters a sense of reliance and dependability that contribute to the trustworthiness of the profession.
Although it is easy to get caught up in the notoriety of a case or feel like we have to set the record straight on public discussion involving a client; the sooner we deal with the reality that as legal professionals we are essentially professional secret-keepers, the faster we can realize that in the long run it is best to keep our lips sealed – we will be respected for it. This involves a conscious decision not to misuse confidential information and to ensure the client’s interests remains at the forefront.
Although lawyers are the butt of pop-culture jokes, the more we advance an ethical reputation on an individual level the more we can influence societal perception and foster a sense of trust towards the profession as a whole.
Being open and honest may sometimes work to your advantage. However, in a previous carreer, I was taught early on to keep my cards close to my chest. Although I am not a poker player, life and work seem to be pieces to a puzzle that if we don’t navigate properly, may cause us to lose out in the end. Perhaps the Go-Go’s have set the standard to which we should follow in our professional lives. Did they really have no secrets to reveal – or were they just great at bluffing to protect what they knew?
The author is a first year student at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law and wrote the essay for Professor Dodek’s course on Legal Ethics.