Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Why Good Lawyers Become Cheaters

Lawyer BlogWe are more likely to lie or cheat if we think it will benefit somebody else – such as a client – and not just ourselves.

And our likelihood of cheating increases exponentially when we think everybody else is doing it too.

These are just two of the fascinating observations made by Duke professor Dan Ariely in his book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: Why We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves.”

After years of studying the topic of dishonesty, Ariely arrived at a sobering conclusion: almost everybody cheats.

“Across all of our experiments, we’ve tested maybe 30,000 people, and we had a dozen or so bad apples and they stole about $150 from us,” said Ariely in an NPR interview. “And we had about 18,000 little rotten apples, each of them just stole a couple of dollars, but together it was $36,000. And if you think about it, I think it’s actually a good reflection of what happens in society.”

Ariely’s research is of special interest to lawyers, who face many of the risk factors that contribute to rotten behavior. We are under extreme pressure. We are expected to deliver the goods. We are expert at rationalization and hyper-technical explanations.

And then there is a more altruistic motive: we want to please our clients.

Mix all of these ingredients together and you’ve got the perfect brew for breaking bad. Following are some of Ariely’s specific insights:

  • We think little transgressions are okay. Few of us would submit a completely bogus annual CLE report to the State Bar. But most have no problem skipping out a few minutes early at a seminar or playing Angry Birds during the whole program. Likewise, very few lawyers steal money from their client trust accounts. But how many have padded a client bill ever so slightly or overcharged for an expense just a teensy amount? “[A]s long as we cheat just a little bit, we can still view ourselves as good people,” Ariely told NPR. “But once we start cheating too much ... we can’t view ourselves as good people and therefore we stop.”
  • The honor system doesn’t work. In one experiment, subjects were told to solve a set of math problems in exchange for $1 for each correct answer. When they were done, they graded their own tests with nobody double-checking, and then self-reported their scores. The result: the subjects lied – but not too much. “What we find is people basically solve four and report six,” said Ariely. “We find that lots of people cheat a little bit; very, very few people cheat a lot.”
  • The less it seems like real money at stake, the more likely we are to cheat. In a variation of the experiment described above, subjects were promised not $1 for each correct answer but a plastic token, which they could take across the hall and exchange for $1. The result: even greater lying. The reason: the less a reward looks like real money, the easier it is to take it without feeling bad. “And the reason this worries me so much is because if you think about modern society, we are creating lots of cashless economy,” said Ariely. “We have electronic wallets, we have mortgage-backed securities, we have stock options.”
  • If we neither like nor respect an authority figure, we are more likely to break the rules. In another experiment, a test administrator took a cell phone call while giving instructions to the participants. The result: the participants were more likely to cheat on the test. Ariely chalks this up to karma: if someone mistreats us, we can rationalize doing something bad to them in return.
  • When we see others cheat and get away with it, we are more likely to cheat. Test subjects who witnessed one person cheating without consequence (by continuing to work on the exam after time was called, for instance) were more likely to cheat themselves. We say, how dare they? And then we proceed to do the same thing.
  • The threat of harsh punishment is no deterrent. Rule-breakers do not conduct a thoughtful cost-benefit analysis before engaging in bad behavior, Ariely found. They act first and think later, if at all. Lawyers who dip into their trust accounts are not thinking about getting caught and disbarred. They are thinking instead about how much they need the money, or how they will quickly repay it and cover their tracks – which of course they never do.

The big takeaway from Ariely’s research: none of us are immune from temptation. Effective deterrence comes from within – from personal integrity and a sense of perspective – and not from without.

And remember: just because it doesn’t fold in our wallets or jingle in our pockets doesn’t mean it’s not real money.

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About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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