Inside (Inhouse) Lawyers: Friends or Gatekeepers?

Those of you teaching Chapter 6—The Lawyer’s Duties to the Legal System, the Profession, and Nonclients—might be interested in an article of mine just published by the Fordham Law Review for its Lawyering in the Regulatory State Symposium.  In the paper, using the GM ignition switch scandal as a point of departure, I critique the common assertion that our legal system is best served if the corporate in-house lawyer conducts his/her relationships with senior corporate managers according to the “lawyer as friend” model. I argue that there are numerous problems with the model, not the least of which is the invariably (and perhaps intentionally) vague way in which the model is invoked.  Those who invoke the “lawyer as friend” model repeatedly assert that the senior corporate manager needs to be able to repose “trust and confidence” in the inhouse lawyer. Unfortunately, they never explain: trust and confidence in what?

As a matter of professional responsibility and fiduciary obligation, the lawyer cannot reassure the manager that his communication will remain confidential or that the manager will be shielded from adverse consequences. If the corporate senior manager is engaged in material wrongdoing that may harm the corporate entity, that manager will usually not be entitled to those assurances.  As William Simon has explained, the authority to invoke or waive the organization’s confidentiality rights usually belongs to the organizational agents different from those who made the confidential communications. Because the lawyer may be required to testify against the manager in a court of law, it would be entirely inappropriate for the lawyer to reassure her colleague of her continuing loyalty or confidentiality.  The lawyer’s duty of confidentiality will not block disclosure within the organization, and it will not prevent the organization from divulging information outside of the corporation, no matter how harmful internal or external disclosure is to the manager. Indeed, the only thing that the lawyer can properly promise the manager is that she will listen carefully and not rush to judgment, which is the behavior that anyone would reasonably expect of a competent professional (irrespective of any preexisting friendship). To suggest that lawyers should invite the manager’s trust and confidence and then—if the lawyer encounters evidence of material misconduct—turn around and report that manager to higher-ups basically advocates a bait and switch model. This “bait and switch” does not sound like friendship, which is precisely why the “lawyer as friend” analogy should be abandoned.

To be sure, in the best possible world, the senior corporate manager backs down from his illicit plan. This good result may be reached through some form of moral dialogue that legal scholars are right to recommend. What many folks ignore, however, is the sobering reality that persuasion does not always work. Not all lawyers will be skillful in the art of moral suasion, and—frankly—most law schools do not train students in moral suasion. Also, sophisticated senior managers, who find themselves in desperate enough situations to be considering wrongdoing in the first place, may not be receptive to the lawyer’s (perhaps feeble) attempts at moral suasion.

Perhaps those invoking the “lawyer as friend” model are merely saying lawyers should be “friendly”?  Unfortunately, that commits the fallacy of confusing “friend” with “friendliness.”

If you’d like to read the whole article, it can be downloaded from SSRN here:

The entire issue of the Fordham Law Review Lawyering in the Regulatory State Symposium can be found here.

 

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