Some Client Delusions Are Useful

Step one of becoming a criminal defense attorney after years as a prosecutor was learning that clients have entrenched, bizarre, misinformed ideas of how the criminal justice system works.

Step two was learning how to persuade clients gently that these entrenched ideas were not true or accurate without mortally offending them or accidentally convincing them that I am some sort of secret flunky for The Man.

Step three has been realizing that client delusions can be useful, even beneficial, and that it is counterproductive to cure them. Case in point: an astonishing percentage of clients, charged with an astonishing array of banal offenses, come to me convinced that their phones are being tapped by the government. If they aren't connected to a multi-kilo drug trafficking organization, organized crime, terrorism, or an extremely significant crime, that's actually highly unlikely. Wiretaps are a gigantic pain in the ass. Even if you think the universe revolves around you, Mr. Client, the U.S. Attorney's office isn't going to be filling out the mountain of paperwork to go up on a wire on your hundred-thousand-dollar fraud case. I spent huge amounts of time explaining this patiently to clients: no, no, it's not that your affairs are insignificant, exactly; it's just that it's terribly unlikely that the government would choose to pursue them with a wiretap.

Suddenly it hit me. These people are motormouths. They refuse to heed my favorite advice. That's often why they are in trouble in the first place. This level of paranoia is useful for client control. Why the hell am I trying to convince them that they aren't being wiretapped, when that will simply encourage them to call everyone they know (like probable government witnesses) to talk about their case? Why am I not recognizing their paranoia as a power for good?

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. ccluskin says

    Is it ethical to lie to clients for their own good?

    This is a pretty simple no, I think. Ethics is tricky business, but there seems to be only a few cases where Kant's categorical imperative can be overridden. Children, incompetents, et cetera. If someone is just dense, I don't know if it makes the grade.

    Perhaps more to the point: Is it ethical to not tell the truth to clients for their own good?

    Say client X believes the government is tapping his phone, displays all the characteristics of someone who would fail to grasp the rarity of government wiretaps, et cetera. By not forcing the truth on him (at the risk of undermining his trust in you), you probably don't break any ethical or moral rules.

    Although you may not break a rule, however, you may be shirking a moral duty by doing so. It may not be un-ethical, but it's certainly not OK either.

  2. TomH says

    Well, to satisy your ehtical duty you only need to tell them the truth once. Will someone with an entrenched view believe you when you tell them once? Probably not.

  3. matt says

    Ccluskin, if you will allow me id like to ask a follow up question (I'm not a lawyer obviously)what if you tell him the truth and he thinks you working for "them" what do you do then?

  4. jb says

    "I doubt they are tapping your phone, but I still urge you not to talk about the case over the phone or otherwise with anyone."

    Conveys that they're not tapping the phone, while allowing your client to believe that they shouldn't talk about the case. The fact that they believe so on the off chance you're wrong, not because of your real reasoning, shouldn't matter.

  5. Doug says

    Perhaps you could just say, "while i don't think they are tapping your phones, you never know, so shut the F up about your case."