​Are white lies harmless?

· 388 words · about 2 minutes

The answer to that question, from a recent Scientific American article, is “no,” but for reasons that are different than you may think.

Small “instances of dishonest behavior have unintended consequences for our emotional intelligence,” according to the Scientific American piece, “the harm is real—and lasting.” And because “of an increase in relational distance and a decrease in empathetic accuracy, those who are dishonest at work may experience a vicious cycle of mutual misunderstandings and missed opportunities for building supporting relationships, which could be detrimental for individuals, as well as for the organizations in which they work.”

“By being dishonest, subjects distanced themselves from others, which led to a reduced ability to read others’ emotions,” the article explains. (Similar issues are explored in Creative’s streaming course Secrets & Lies: The Legal Ethics of Misrepresentation, with advice from Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez.)

This can mean havoc for a law firm with litigation teams that rely upon transparency among its members. Imagine a multi-million dollar case with a defense team comprised of a Senior Partner, a Junior Partner, and two associates. A “harmless fib” by one member of the team could, according to American Scientific, undermine the inter-personal relationships that connect counsel handling the matter.

A failing in trust among counsel could lead to further misunderstandings down the road – a lack of faith in legal research, a distrust in oral advocacy, a failure in full-disclosure – and, in the extreme example, cost your client the case and a significant adverse judgment.

“[C]heaters,” American Scientific concluded, were “more likely to engage in repeated unethical behavior. This result suggests that once we engage in dishonest behavior, we may also distance ourselves from other people by regarding them as less human, which allows us to continue down a path of subsequent, repeated unethical behavior. Our research implies that even small acts of dishonesty can go a long way, leaving ripple effects that may undermine a fundamental building block of our humanity: social connection."

For attorneys, unethical behavior should always be of paramount concern. Indeed, the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct causes no ambiguity in its instruction that counsel been honest and forthcoming with the Court and with third-parties. (See e.g., ABA RPC 3.3.) It is apparent there is no such thing as a “harmless lie.”

Want More? Click the Image...