The Lawyer’s Compass: Full and Frank Disclosure and The Curative Power of Being Forthright

When was the last time you had a conversation about a difficult topic? I recently had one with a client that left me with an important life reminder.

I was meeting with Walter (not his real name) to discuss his case. He wasn’t going to like what I had to say. In spite of his injuries which had caused 14 months of pain and multiple doctor appointments that included cervical injections that left him with permanent pain in his back at the age of 29 — there were two big problems with his case, neither of which were his fault.

I’d been avoiding meeting with him because I didn’t like what I had to tell him. I felt bad about it. How many times have you been in a similar situation with a client, friend or family member?

But I pushed past those feelings and called him into the office.

We started by talking about the good parts of his case. When the conversation moved to the problems, I could tell by the look on his face that he wasn’t happy. After about 20 minutes of answering his questions, he told me that while he was disappointed, he was glad I told him the truth rather than “bullsh*t” him (as he put it).

I was greatly relieved. He wasn’t angry at me for telling him what he wouldn’t like hearing. While it doesn’t go this way with every client, it does with most.

I can’t imagine holding back critical information from my client — morally or legally. If I don’t let them know the truths about their case, how can they make their best decisions?  

What’s the purpose of our relationship if not to meaningfully help a client through a difficult and challenging time?

Full and Frank Disclosure doesn’t mean blasting the other person. It always means being respectful. It concerns matters of your heart that include your own fears, anxieties, and feelings. It’s full of “I” statements, not what the other person is or isn’t doing.

What’s so strange about being a lawyer is that I owe a legal duty of full and frank disclosure to my clients that I don’t to anyone in my personal life, including my wife, children, or parents!  

When someone you trust and care for holds back information you really need to know, how does that make you feel? It often cuts to the heart. The more significant the relationship and the information, the deeper the cut.

Why is it so much easier for me to have difficult conversations with clients than with a friend or family member?  

There’s one big reason: It’s not personal. If a client doesn’t like what I have to say, they can get another attorney. I don’t like that idea, but I don’t want to be a client’s lawyer if they don’t like me being truthful.  

There is no such luxury in my personal life. The price of loss is much higher. I can afford to lose a client far easier than someone I love. If my wife or life long friend doesn’t like what I have to say, it can reverberate throughout the relationship.  

Early in my marriage I learned this lesson the hard way. Jan wanted to move into a house that I did not want to — at all.  She was so excited that I decided to not tell her how I felt. I wanted to make her happy.  

Wow, that was a mistake. While I could hide my words, the way I truly felt was slowly revealed after we moved in. Any idea Jan had about making a change in the house fell flat with me. When she talked excitedly about the house to a friend, I didn’t say much.  

When I finally told her, she was shocked and mad. We were a couple and that meant it was important that we were at least on the same page, rather than a different book, about decisions that affected both of us.

While she appreciated that I wanted to make her happy, she didn’t like that I wasn’t forthright with her.

That was a major lesson I learned about the importance of full and frank disclosure in relationships.

Less than Forthright or Full-on Lie?

Not disclosing a truth about myself isn’t always lying. But saying something that isn’t true or not fully answering a question is lying.

While failing to be forthright may not be lying, it has its own insidious effect on relationships. It stunts full potential.

There is a curative power that comes from speaking our inner truths to others. Especially the ones we’re afraid of or don’t like. It’s not that we’re necessarily lying when we don’t speak up, it’s that we aren’t living who we were fully meant to be and that keeps the relationship from growing, too.  

By talking about our inner fears and demons to the ones we care about and trust, we make ourselves both vulnerable and whole. We soak in the healing and restorative waters relationships hold, even though at times the walk to the water is like bare feet on sharp pebbles.

I am not the only one who loses when I’m less than forthright. The other person loses too, and so does the relationship. We give anxiety and fear more power than they truly have when we don’t talk about them. We turn them into walls that stop us from advancing in the experience called life, rather than the “warning — proceed with caution” that they actually mean.  

How do you deal with your fears and anxieties about being forthright with an important person in your life? Is there a specific topic that you’ve been avoiding? Make a plan to be forthright and do it!

P.S. Don’t worry so much about the sharp pebbles. The water is well worth it.  

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  • Ronn Elzinga
    Reply

    Thanks, Jim, for yet another excellent blog.

    • Jim Dwyer
      Jim Dwyer
      Reply

      Thank you Ronn.

  • B
    Reply

    Your blog post truly resonates with me today, as I deal with a difficult client. Thank you for sharing.

    • Jim Dwyer
      Jim Dwyer
      Reply

      I’m glad it came at a good time.

  • Kimberly Stamatelos
    Reply

    Wonderful post Jim! Thanks for being a beacon of light in so many ways. Like many of the things you write about living this type of honest life and practicing law in this way takes courage. I hope others follow your example and know you are an inspiration to me!

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