Here’s the problem: If you tell your lawyer the story of what happened, and then in court you tell a different story, it may appear that you’ve committed perjury (lied under oath). And if your lawyer knows you’ve committed perjury, he may be required to inform the judge or else immediately withdraw from the case (which in itself lets the judge know that you just committed perjury).1
Fortunately, you can avoid this conflict of interest by choosing your words carefully and being alert while talking to your lawyer:
2. Your lawyer may structure his questions very carefully, so that you can give him needed information without eliminating possible lines of argument. So listen to the exact wording of the question; answer it precisely; then stop. (Don’t worry about giving too short an answer. If your lawyer needs to hear more, you can be quite sure he’ll ask a follow-up question.)
3. When you ask questions or want to add information your lawyer hasn’t asked for, do it in the form of a hypothetical question. The easy way to do this is to start your question with the words, “Hypothetically speaking…?”
4. If your lawyer interrupts you, try to figure out why. It could be that he’s just being a jerk, but possibly he’s trying to keep you from saying something that will limit your options later on.2
In the cartoons above, the silly client admitted to his lawyer that he touched the car. So if that client testifies in court that he didn’t touch the car, the lawyer may be required to snitch. The smart client answered his lawyer’s question very precisely, giving his lawyer enough information to plan the defense strategy, without limiting his own testimony.
In the cartoons above, the silly client told her lawyer that she was selling marijuana. So if that client testifies in court that she didn’t sell any of it, her lawyer may be required to snitch. The smart client did not officially tell her lawyer that she was selling marijuana. But she successfully alerted her lawyer to the matter a way that will allow them to discuss the legal issues involved.
1. This is more of a problem for low-income people who are relying on a court-appointed lawyer, such as a public defender. Clients who’ve got enough money can always switch lawyers before trial, if they find they’ve over-shared. Although in general your lawyer must keep your secrets, this does not apply if you lie while testifying. If it’s discovered that a lawyer knew about a client’s perjury and failed to report it, the lawyer could be disbarred (lose his license to practice law).
2. If you’re not sure what your lawyer’s up to, just ask: “Are you interrupting me because I’m starting to say something you don’t need to hear, or is it for some other reason?”