I was taught growing up that the truth would set me free, but it wasn’t until much later – and an incident involving Little Debbie snack cakes – that I saw how it actually works.
Up until then I got the general idea. But still, I had my doubts. It seemed that in the real world telling the truth was as likely to get you into trouble as out of it.
I recall in my early days of practice one particular client who staggered up the three steep flights of stairs to my office on Broad Street in Charleston. By office I mean a converted storage room in the Rosen building. The gentleman had been pulled over by a state trooper for driving erratically. When the officer asked if he’d been drinking, he said yes.
“Honestly sir,” slurred my client. “I can’t remember.”
Needless to say he was not set free.
Checking the Wrong Box on the Application
As I continued to practice, I started to realize honesty might indeed be the best policy, at least if I wanted to keep my law license.
For clients, it was often the only way to go. In the early 2000s I began representing people with matters before the Board of Law Examiners. These were always sad affairs. My clients had suffered through law school – some had even already taken the bar exam – and were so close to being actual, licensed attorneys they could almost taste the fruit of the poisonous tree.
Then one day a certified letter would arrive. And boom, just like that, their dream was in jeopardy.
Typically the Board alleged a “failure to disclose pertinent information.” This was a polite way of saying the person had lied on their bar application. Often it was a lie of omission. They’d left out something unflattering from their past like a criminal record or college expulsion – or in one instance that they weren’t even who they claimed to be.
Occasionally it was a simple oversight that could be easily remedied. But usually not.
Initially I was surprised that some clients insisted on sticking to their guns. I remember one who had failed to disclose several prior arrests and convictions. This of course was a hopeless strategy. One of the first things the Board does is run a background check on the applicant.
My counsel was to come clean. Better late than never. We’d have a chance to clarify, mitigate and explain, and if that didn’t work we could fall on our knees and beg for forgiveness. Besides, the Board already had the incriminating evidence – a big fat binder of it. What other choice was there?
“We’re fighting this,” he said.
By fighting he meant denying he’d done anything wrong and accusing the DA and judge and the government of some vague conspiracy to ruin his life. Which he proceeded to do at the hearing, with predictable results.
The Great Little Debbie Caper
Around this same time, I got a call from Phillips Middle School, where my oldest daughter Rachel was in seventh grade. It seems she and some of her friends were suspected of stealing Little Debbie Zebra Cakes from the cafeteria.
Some of the culprits had been spotted by an eyewitness. Others confessed. But Rachel denied any involvement, and when none of her pals ratted her out, she was released to my custody.
The next day she missed school, complaining of a mysterious stomach ailment. The day after that she was grouchy, tearful and generally awful to be around. On the third day, she voluntarily went to see the principal – the kindly and able Mr. Cheek – and admitted her guilt.
The Incredible Shrinking Soul
We live in an age of alternative facts. I don’t even know what that means. I was raised to believe the opposite of fact is fiction – a story, something made up – not alternative facts.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve told my share of lies. Little white ones, big whoppers, and many in between. Some have hurt other people, and those I regret the most. But every single falsehood has hurt me by adding yet another link to a chain that binds me to a diminished sense of self.
To this day, I remember sitting in Mr. Cheek’s office and looking out the window at my sweet child and the other Little Debbie bandits picking up trash on the playground. She was out there in the sunshine with her friends, talking and horsing around.
I knew the experience had been painful to her, and that she had learned a hard but valuable lesson. And yet I could see her smiling as she stabbed at litter with a pointed stick. She didn’t look like she was being punished at all. She looked happy. She looked free.
Jay Reeves has practiced law and done other things over the years. That’s the truth. These days Rachel enjoys Little Debbie snacks in Brooklyn NY. Want to jump-start your law marketing or improve your law messaging? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-619-2441.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.