It’s not just that my clients lie to me a lot, which will only hurt them — it’s that they’re really, really bad at it.

My job as a public defender puts me in a weird place. I am my clients’ zealous advocate, but I’m not their marionette. I don’t just roll into court to parrot whatever my clients tell me — I make sure I’m not re-shoveling bullshit. So for my sake and theirs, I do my homework. I corroborate. I investigate.

A significant portion of my job ironically mirrors that of a police detective. Every case I get requires me to deploy a microscope and retrace the cops’ steps to see if they fucked up somehow (spoiler: they haven’t). Sometimes I go beyond what the cops did to collect my own evidence and track down my own witnesses.

All this puts some of my clients of the guilty persuasion in a bind. Sure, they don’t want me sitting on my ass doing nothing for their case, but they also can’t have me snooping around on my own too much. . . because who knows what I might find? So they take steps to surreptitiously install guardrails around my scrutiny, hoping I won’t notice.

You might wonder why any chicanery from my clients is warranted. After all, am I not professionally obligated to strictly maintain client confidentiality? It’s true, a client can show me where they buried their dozen murder victims and I wouldn’t be allowed to tell a soul, even if an innocent person is sitting in prison for their crimes. Part of my clients’ clammed-up demeanors rests on a deluded notion that I won’t fight as hard for their cases unless I am infatuated by their innocence. Perhaps they don’t realize that representing the guilty is the overwhelmingly banal reality of my job.[1] More importantly, it’s myopic to forget that judges, prosecutors, and jurors want to see proof, not just emphatic assurances on the matter. 

But clients still lie to me — exclusively to their own detriment

Marcel was not allowed to possess a firearm. And yet mysteriously, when the police arrested him — the details are way too complicated to explain, even by my standards — in his sister’s vehicle, they found a pistol under the passenger seat.

“The gun is not mine. I don’t even like guns. I’m actually scared of guns.” He told me this through the jail plexiglass as I flipped through his remarkable résumé of gun-related crimes. Marcel spent our entire first meeting proselytizing his innocence to me. Over the next half hour he went on a genealogy world tour, swearing up and down on the lives of various immediate and extended members of his family that he never ever ever touched guns.

I was confused why he perseverated so much, but I just nodded along as part of my standard early precarious effort to build rapport with a new (and likely volatile) client. What he was telling me wasn’t completely implausible — sometimes people are indeed caught with contraband that isn’t theirs — but there was nothing I could do with his information at that early stage. Maybe he thought if he could win me over as a convert, I’d then ask for the case to be dismissed on the “he says it’s not his” precedent.

Weeks later, I got the first batch of discovery. I perused the photographs that documented the meticulous search of his sister’s car. I saw the pistol glistening beneath the camera flash, nestled among some CDs and a layer of Cheetos crumbs. And on the pistol itself, a sight to behold: to this day the clearest, most legible, most unobstructed fingerprints I have ever seen in my legal life. If you looked closely enough, the whorls spelled out his name and Social Security number.

Public defenders are entitled to ask the court for money to pay for private investigators, digital forensic specialists, fingerprint examiners, or whatever else is needed to ensure a defendant in a criminal case is provided with his constitutionally guaranteed legal bulwark. The photographed prints here were so apparent that an examiner could easily rely on the photos alone to make a comparison.

Marcel had earned himself some trolling from me. I went back to see him at the jail, faked as much enthusiasm as I could muster, and declared, “Good news! They found fingerprints on the gun!” He stared at me stunned and confused, so I continued.

“Well, when we first met, you told me that you never touched the gun,” I reminded him with an encouraging smile. “Obviously you wouldn’t lie to your own lawyer, and so what I can do is get a fingerprint expert to come to the jail, take your prints, then do a comparison on the gun itself. Since you never touched the gun, the prints won’t be a match! This whole case will get dismissed, and we can put all this behind you!”[2]

He was still reeling but realized I was waiting for a response. “You. . . don’t need to do that,” he muttered. I had the confirmation I was looking for, but I pressed him while maintaining the facade of earnest congeniality.

“But why not?” I sang in staccato, smile wide. “You told me. That. You. Never. Touch any guns.”

Turned out Marcel might have accidentally touched the gun. So his prints could be on it. I had made my point, so I dropped the act. I explained to Marcel that the only thing lying to me accomplishes is to slow things down and worsen his own prospects — how could I pursue any potentially helpful leads for his defense when I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t about to bumble into an incriminating revelation?

Marcel nodded sagely and claimed to understand, but he went on to lie to me many more times over the next two years that I remained his attorney. Marcel has and will spend the majority of his adult life in prison — not necessarily because he lied to me but that certainly didn’t help.

My first meeting with Kyle was useless. He insisted throughout that it wasn’t him, that he wasn’t even there. Now, personally speaking, if several witnesses claimed to have seen someone who looks like me, in my car, with my girlfriend in the front seat, commit a drive-by shooting in broad daylight, I would summon slightly more curiosity about who this apparent doppelganger might be. But Kyle gave me no leads, pantomiming an internal agony about not wanting to be a snitch, clutching at his stomach as if the mere thought was physically unbearable.

His tune eventually changed. “I need you to tell the prosecutor who was driving my car,” he said.“His name is Richie Bottoms.” If the name hadn’t given it away, I already knew where this was going,[3] and I was excited for the coming entertainment. I pretended to be enthused by his revelation, and let Kyle know that I had a “really great” investigator who’s phenomenal at tracking “anyone” down — even the elusive Dick Bottoms.

Based on his reaction, that wasn’t the response Kyle expected; another illustration of a myopic theory of mind (not uncommon among the interpersonally inept) incapable of simulating anything but affirmation. He tensed up momentarily, but realized that he’d already committed himself to acting out a demeanor congruent with the “innocent client responds to helpful attorney” fantasy. Yet the only excuse he could muster up in the moment was that Richie wouldn’t be found because he fled to Los Angeles.

I maintained what must have been an obnoxious level of optimism, explaining how “perfect” that was because my investigator “knew lots of people” there. My job affords me few if any moments of joy, and so forgive me if I overindulged in Kyle’s vexation. I’ll spare you a full accounting of the myriad reasons he gave why tracking down Sir Bottoms was a lost cause. Suffice to say that in addition to being out of state, Richie had maybe fled the country; also, Richie happens to look almost identical to Kyle, but also we might not even know his real name since he went by “Arby,” and no one had his phone number, et cetera. . . 

Even when we moved on to other topics, Kyle couldn’t let it go, interrupting whatever we were talking about to repeat warnings about how tracking down Richie was going to be a total waste of time for my investigator and me. He was palpably angry, but had no viable outlet for his frustration, and so he just stewed, stuck with his lie. I kept my poker face. It’s a stark contrast to my factually innocent clients, who cannot help but drown me with leads to pursue in the hopes that any are helpful.

The whole thing reminded me of Carl Sagan’s parable of the dragon in his garage as a critique of certain unprovable religious beliefs. Can I see the dragon? No, it’s invisible. Can I detect its fire’s thermal image? No, the fire is heatless. Can I find Dick in Los Angeles? No, because now he fled the country. 

There’s always some excuse — there’s always some eject button allowing my defendants to evade specific evidence demands. No matter how ridiculous.

It’s banal for my clients to deny the accusations, but a special breed takes denial to the next level by waging total jihad against their accusers. It’s a sort of a reverse counterpart to the Narcissist’s Prayer:

If they claim I was driving during the hit-and-run, they’re lying.

And if they’re liars, then they exaggerated their injuries.

And they’re exaggerating because they’re after an insurance payday.

And we know they’re after a payday because they sued their dry cleaners in 1993.

And they’re framing me to get money, which is how we know they’re lying.

In these clients’ telling, nothing is their fault. The random bystanders who randomly drew the unlucky witness card become a convenient scapegoat. Yet these clients are so myopically overwhelmed by the desire to bounce the rubble on a witness’s credibility, they don’t notice how implausible their story becomes with each new clause they tape onto their fabulist’s scrapbook.[4]

Sometimes clients are self-aware enough to couch their denials in innuendo. Ivan, who was accused of [redacted], was waging the same Total War approach against Cindy, a social worker at the homeless shelter where Ivan regularly stayed. Cindy was a dangerous witness — an uninvolved, respected professional who severely undercut Ivan’s alibi defense about having never left the shelter to go on his [redacted] spree.

In yet another of our jail rendezvous, Ivan expounded at length about how Cindy’s testimony was invalid because, as a social worker, she would be violating HIPAA.[5] The glaze over my eyes must have gotten too obvious for me to hide, so he switched tack, shuffled through his jail-sanctioned filing system (read: pile), and slid a flyer across the table about trash cleanup day at the shelter, with a smiling cartoon trash can picking up a baby garbage bag while announcing “Pick up a little trash, talk a little trash.” It’s cute, but what the fuck was I supposed to be looking at? Ivan stared at me grinning and expectant, but his demeanor quickly turned into disappointment at my ongoing silence. He snatched the flyer out of my hand and jammed his finger at the “talk a little trash” clause. “This!” he shouted, and then just stared at me again. I looked at the words that meant so much to him and nothing to me and just said, “Huh?”

His disappointment transmogrified into astonished anger. “Do I have to fucking spell it out for you?” he screamed. “I thought you were the lawyer here!” We had been ping-ponging across various aspects of his case for the last hour or so and I gave up on any posturing and reiterated my ignorance at the significance of the cartoon flyer. Ivan snapped, “Cindy is encouraging people to trash talk!” For, you see, she wrote the flyer. “I’m trying to show you that she’s a fucking punk! And a liar!”

I immediately understood why Ivan was so attached to remaining within the realm of innuendo. Because as soon as he gave his claim some body (“We should infer lack of credibility from individuals when they author flyers that include garbage-related puns”), he knew how much of a dumbass he would sound like out loud.

Ivan moved on from the flyer, and instead asked how to disqualify a witness “for being a liar.” I tell him that’s not a thing,[6] which sent him into a further rage. “I need you to be on my side here but all I hear from you is ‘NO.’ Why are you working for the prosecutors?

The manipulation attempts we just cataloged were comically inept, and fell apart with far less effort than it took to create them. Slightly more polished versions of these charades are regularly deployed within the Discourse™ but they’re equally hollow and just as pathetic. So those are some of my clients — individuals who cannot rise to the level of your average internet troll.

[Originally posted on Singal-Minded]


  1. ^

    There is a kernel of an exception that is almost not worth mentioning. The Rules of Professional Conduct 3.3 obligates me with the duty of candor. I am not allowed to present evidence that I “know” is false, which encompasses witness testimony. Some jurisdictions make exceptions to this rule for defendants testifying in their criminal trial (correctly, IMO) but not all. So assuming that a client truthfully confesses to me, assuming we go to trial, assuming they decide to testify, and assuming I “know” they’re going to lie, then yes, this could indeed spawn a very awkward situation where I’m forced to withdraw in the middle of proceedings.

  2. ^

    I’m told I put on a good poker face.

  3. ^

    There was no Richie Bottoms.

  4. ^

    For example, Kyle asked if it was possible to present self-defense evidence on behalf of “Richie Bottoms,” just in case.

  5. ^

    Does this sound familiar to anyone?

  6. ^

    During the editing process, Jesse was skeptical of this. “Wait,” he asked me in a Google Doc comment, “there’s NO way for one side to prove to a judge that a witness is so untrustworthy the jurors/judge shouldn’t consider their testimony?” Correct. The closest rule is disqualifying a witness as incompetent, either for being too young, severely mentally ill or mentally retarded, or too intoxicated (on the witness stand!). Credibility is up to the judge/jury to decide, and if a witness has a history of lying, then it makes for a very easy credibility impeachment. Theoretically, in extremely rare circumstances, a judge could strike the testimony of a witness or find them in contempt, but they’d have to be seriously flagrant about their lying under oath. I have never heard of this happening.

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Why are you working for the prosecutors?

This is a pretty reasonable question from the client's perspective! When I was in psychiatric prison ("hospital", they call it a "hospital") and tried to complain to the staff about the injustice of my confinement, I was told that I could call "patient's rights".

I didn't bother. If the staff wasn't going to listen, what was the designated complaint line going to do?

Later, I found out that patient's rights advocates apparently are supposed to be independent, and not just a meaningless formality. (Scott Alexander: "Usually the doctors hate them, which I take as a pretty good sign that they are actually independent and do their job.")

This was not at all obvious from the inside. I can only imagine a lot of criminal defendants have a similar experience. Defense attorneys are frustrated that their clients don't understand that they're trying to help—but that "help" is all within the rules set by the justice system. From the perspective of a client who doesn't think he did anything particularly wrong (whether or not the law agrees), the defense attorney is part of the system.

I think my intuition was correct to dismiss patient's rights as useless.... (read more)

It's perfectly reasonable for any client to be suspicious of my motivations and alignment, I'm after all paid directly by the same government that is gunning to throw them behind bars! The clients that are most honest with me are overwhelmingly either newbies to the criminal justice system or factually innocent. The ones who lie to me the most are frequent flyers whose guilt is not in doubt (non-legally speaking). Everyone wants to be let out of jail, the problem is that the latter group has no viable recourse available to make that happen, and their typical temperament drifts them towards pathetic dishonesty.

An unsurprising corollation there but I have to wonder if there is not also some causative relationship present as well.
I mean... you're sticking to generalities here, and implying that the perspective of the client who thinks he didn't do anything wrong is as valid as any other perspective. But if we try to examine some specific common case, eg: "The owner said you robbed his store, the cameras showed you robbing his store, your fingerprints are on the register", then the client's fury at the attorney "working with the prosecutor" doesn't seem very productive? The problem isn't that the client is disagreeing with the system about the moral legitimacy of robbing a store. The problem is that the client is looking for a secret trick so the people-who-make-decisions-about-store-robberies will think he didn't rob the store and that's not gonna happen. With that in mind, saying the attorney is "part of the system" is... well, maybe it's factually true, but it implicitly blames the robber's predicament on the system and on his attorney in a way that just doesn't make sense. The robber would be just as screwed if he was represented by eg his super-wealthy uncle with a law degree who loves him dearly. (I don't know about your psychiatric incarceration, so I'm not commenting on it. Your situation is probably pretty different to the above.)

Great post! 

> a client can show me where they buried their dozen murder victims and I wouldn’t be allowed to tell a soul, even if an innocent person is sitting in prison for their crimes.

For any Alaskan serial murderers reading this, do note that this does not apply to you. Your Alaskan attorney can breach attorney-client privilege to prevent an innocent person from going to jail. See Rule 1.6(b)(1)(C).

Interesting! I wasn't aware of this exception. Writing about the law is hard because there are always a million different caveats, some of which will be obsolete by the next year.

3M. Y. Zuo
Why not add a disclaimer spelling out that what’s written could be false or misleading depending on the caveats?
The American Bar Association writes the Model Rules of Professional Conduct which are not governing but intended to serve as a template for attorney bars to adopt. Right off the bat that's at least 50 different jurisdictions (plus DC, plus Puerto Rico, plus federal judicial districts, plus many more) that may or may not adopt the RPCs with or without any modifications. Sometimes the modifications are done to comport with state constitution, a judicial committee, a piece of legislation, new case law, or whatever else. So very often, I don't even know that I don't know of a caveat. But even if I did, adding a disclaimer would render anything I write about the law nigh-incomprehensible. Just consider how many libraries have been filled with exceptions and caveats from this one sentence: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
0M. Y. Zuo
The disclaimer doesn’t need to enumerate a full list, as long as it points out that a nebulous cloud of potential and actual caveats exists and may apply is sufficient.

Aw man there goes my weekend plans

Wow, that's fucked up.

Is it? The law could be setup so that the revealed evidence can only be used to help the innocent, not against the client. Would that be an acceptable compromise?
[-]Ben Pace34-20

Curated! Very interesting to get a vivid sense of what goes on when people are facing strong pressures to lie, and how they go about doing this. Both their adamance that they were right and their transparency to you were both fascinating. And this was very engagingly written. Thanks for the post!

I disagree with this decision, not because I think it was a bad post, but because it doesn't seem like the type of post that leads people to a more nuanced or better view of any of the things discussed, much less a post that provided insight or better understanding of critical things in the broader world. It was enjoyable, but not what I'd like to see more of on Less Wrong.

(Note: I posted this response primarily because I saw that lots of others also disagreed with this, and think it's worth having on the record why at least one of us did so.)

FWIW when I was having these conversations with my clients, I was explicitly thinking of the exact same ideas presented in the Sequences. I do think that overall, LW would benefit from a higher appreciation of deception and how it can manifest in the real world. The scenarios I outlined are almost cartoonish, but they're very real, and I thought it useful to demonstrate how I used very basic rationalist tools to uncover lies.

Again, I think it was a fine and enjoyable post.

But I didn't see where you "demonstrate how I used very basic rationalist tools to uncover lies," which could have improved the post, and I don't think this really explored any underappreciated parts of "deception and how it can manifest in the real world" - which I agree is underappreciated. Unfortunately, this post didn't provide much clarity about how to find it, or how to think about it. So again, it's a fine post, good stories, and I agree they illustrate being more confused by fiction than reality, and other rationalist virtues, but as I said, it was not "the type of post that leads people to a more nuanced or better view of any of the things discussed." 


I'd be pretty interested in the non-cartoonish version, also from people who are more competent and savvy.

I am not a lawyer and don't know (much) more about how this stuff works than the average person. From my perspective, there are pros and cons to a defendant lying to a public defender.


  • Assuming your lie is successful and it earns you sympathy, the public defender might:
    • Work harder.
    • Spend some political capital they have access to on your case.
    • Avoid working against you. Maybe if you don't explicitly earn their sympathy they'll be "in bed with the prosecutors" and share what you tell them in confidence with the prosectors in an attempt to get you convicted.


  • Assuming your lie is successful:
    • The prosecution might realize the truth, and your lawyer will be unprepared to defend you against their arguments.
  • Assuming your lie is unsuccessful:
    • The inverse of the "Pros" section, pretty much.

It doesn't seem to me like "be completely honest with your lawyer" is always the right approach to take. It seems likely that how sympathetic they are to you is very important and I can imagine realistic situations where there are lies you can tell that a) are unlikely to be figured out and b) earn you a lot of sympathy in such a way that the pros probably outweigh the cons.

Separately, there is the qu... (read more)

I appreciate this systemic approach to analyzing lying! The Pros/Cons depend heavily on the type of lie, and you can split it roughly between "factual lies" and "sympathy lies". Factual lies are about whether or not this thing did or did not happen, while sympathy lies are used to generate sympathy from others (e.g. "if I get convicted I'll lose everything").

Sympathy lies are more likely to be successful, but they're also not very consequential. It's possible that it could have an effect at the slimmest of margins, but the risks give it an expected payoff close to zero. The only way I can see this work is if it's done by the truly sociopathic compulsive liars who can manage to successfully con dozens of people.

Factual lies are meaningless. The evidence either corroborates their claims or it doesn't. If there's no corroboration except their word, then they open themselves up to potentially brutal cross-examination. Many many (guilty) defendants have confidently believed they can talk their way out of a situation and failed spectacularly (SBF comes to mind).

And yes, absolutely my job relies heavily on building trust and rapport with my clients. It occupies at least around 80% of my initial conversations with a client.

9Adam Zerner
It sounds like with "factual lies" you're saying that certain lies are about something that can easily be verified, and thus you're unlikely to convince other people that you're being truthful. Is that accurate? If so, that definitely makes sense. It seems like it's almost always a bad idea to lie in such situations. Why do you say that sympathy lies are not very consequential (assuming they are successful)? My model is that defendants have a pretty large range for how hard they could work on the case, working harder increases the odds of of winning by a good amount, and how hard they work depends a good amount on how sympathetic they are towards the defendant. Gotcha. Makes sense. It's interesting how frequently a job that is on it's surface about X is largely, even mainly about Y. With X being "legal stuff" and Y being "emotional stuff" here (I'm being very hand-wavy). Another example: I'm a programmer and I think that for programming, X is "writing code" and Y is "empathizing with users and working backwards from their most pressing needs". In theory there is a division of labor and the product manager deals with the Y, but in practice I've found that even in companies that try to do this heavily (smaller, more startup-y companies don't aim to divide the labor as much), Y is still incredibly important. Probably even more important than X.
Not necessarily, I was referring to lies about the case itself, and those always have the potential to be exposed by either my investigations or the prosecutor. Forgive me for answering with literal walls of text but this essay might explain things better: Eleven Magic Words. Bottom line is that I'm generally useless and any contributions I may bring to the table are almost entirely fungible. This other one of mine also gets into the inherent limitations of my job: Death of a Client.

> Every case I get requires me to deploy a microscope and retrace the cops’ steps to see if they fucked up somehow (spoiler: they haven’t).

At the risk of stating the obvious, even according to the link provided, not all defendants are guilty. 

And there is indeed tremendous pressure to plead guilty given the draconian penalties that some with a guilty verdict after a not guilty plea, versus a plea deal. 

The book "Evil Angels" about the Lindy Chamberlain case in Australia illustrates some of the things that can go wrong and lead to innocent people being charged.   

See also the reports from the Innocence project. 

I could have been more precise with my wording, but I never meant to imply that there are no innocent defendants.
Yes, but to defend (hehe) OP, he seems to be fully aware of that and addresses that explicitly in the linked article (which is also excellent, like this one):

I think you’re understating how helpful it can be for a client if their pd strongly advocates for them. When a pd is telling me about all these mitigating circumstances and asking me to drop the jail because the perp has kids and the kids are here in court and he’s the sole bread winner and please just walk back for a second and speak to them and look one of your witnesses has two armed robbery felonies so I might actually win this case; that affects me. I like to pretend that it doesn’t but I’ve come down on offers many times after the pd goes to bat for ... (read more)

I think I recognize the power I wield in these circumstances. However, it only exists because I work to ensure my credibility doesn't get diluted too often.
Yeah I stupidly left out the key point of my comment. Added it in edit.
It's interesting hearing about your background. One of my approaches when I negotiate cases with prosecutors is that I openly admit the strengths of the government's case. I've recently had a factually innocent client who was charged as an accessory to burglary, but it seemed obvious to me she had no idea what the other people were up to. When I talked to the prosecutor, I fully acknowledged "This aspect does indeed look bad for my client, but..." and I've always wondered whether this approach has any effect. In this particular instance I did get the case dismissed (and many others like it), but I'm curious if it's a lesson I can continue extrapolating.
Yeah openly admitting that I have a strong case is good for credibility building. One of the most annoying things is when defense attorneys ask, "Why is Alice is getting a sweetheart plea deal and Bob is getting jail time when they both committed the same crime and both have minimal criminal history???" "Uh, Alice's case is almost purely circumstantial while Bob is caught on camera, that's the difference." "But they both did the same bad thing!" "Do you understand how plea deals work?" "[Some nonsense showing that the defense attorney indeed doesn't know how plea deals work]"
Are you a prosecutor/judge?
I’m the first one

I feel you, I'm a lawyer in France in civil law and people will deform so many things that you will learn about so late in the process that it gets very difficult (if possible at all) to backtrack.

This was an extremely enjoyable read.

Good fun.


I like these kinds of posts.


Massad Ayoob, one of the most prolific firearm instructors, said that if you have to defend yourself using a gun, you should hope your attacker survives. Because if your attacker dies, a prosecutor can invent a plausible-sounding story as to how your attacker wasn't posing any real threat, and your "self defense" was actually murder. But if the attacker survives, he can be subpoenaed to testify. And most criminals are bad at testifying.

Kyle Rittenhouse may have been saved by Gaige Grosskreutz's disastrous testimony.

As a prolific criminal defense attorney, I cannot endorse that advice on those grounds. You should always hope that your attacker survives because killing someone (even if ultimately justified) exposes you to more serious legal jeopardy. Grosskreutz's testimony was disastrous not because he was a criminal who was bad at testifying, but because he told the truth and the truth happened to be on Rittenhouse's side. An attacker getting killed doesn't mean one cannot draw inferences based on the circumstances.

I've heard the opposite - a dead shooting victim means there aren't any witnesses to contradict your story.
This is also true

Very interesting.

I am wondering, do you think your clients are lying to you because they don't trust you specifically (which would be understandable to some extent)? Or do you think its more that they don't trust themselves to act out two different narratives? [IE in the case where they tell you its all true, but still want to keep open the option of denying it to the court]. That somehow by committing completely to the "wasn't me" narrative in every action (and, as much as possible, every thought) they have a chance of dragging the timeline into a parallel universe where it really wasn't, or by some other mechanism improve there chances.

No, the lying doesn't come from a lack of trust but rather a manipulation attempt. Their overriding goal is to get off the charges no matter what it takes, so they're willing to flip through and latch onto whatever narrative helps them get there. They basically want me to be a ventriloquist and use me to launder their talking points because it's more believable coming from me. Of course as I pointed out, they don't really think the plan all the way through.

Interesting! But, when they’re trying to hoodwink you into parroting their talking points, it could be either because they see you as untrustworthy, part of the court system, or because they genuinely think the way to get off the hook is to have their attorney declare that actually they’re 100% innocent because of some convoluted story, the way it happens in movies, and they don‘t think that all the way through. That latter point is definitely a lot of what you describe, but would you say they trust you, or do they also lie because they see you as untrustworthy?

They're in a bind with severely limited options. I've never had a client focus on a single avenue towards acquittal, they'll take whatever they can get. They'll switch focus from witness credibility, wrong first name on traffic ticket, filing deadlines missed by prosecutor, constitutional law argument they found on youtube, pretending to have a mental illness, or MARRYING a witness while in jail under the theory that spousal privilege somehow would prevent them from testifying (this happened!), etc.

Whether or not they seem me as 'trustworthy' is a question with multiple dimensions. If they don't trust me to work hard on their case, I can prove otherwise by actually taking their Dick Bottoms leads seriously but that's generally the opposite of what they want. I can also prove otherwise by researching legal remedies but they get pissed if I don't reach the "right" answer. What it tends to boil down to is that they don't trust me to be their criminal co-conspirator, like with clients who (coyly) ask me to threaten witnesses on their behalf or otherwise tamper with evidence somehow.

Generally I'm a fungible component of the system and the sociopathic bunch have no reason to care about what happens to me specifically (I don't fault them for that) which is why I describe this as pure manipulation attempts.

What it tends to boil down to is that they don't trust me to be their criminal co-conspirator

Yeah, as a certain TV character said, they don't want a criminal lawyer, they want a criminal lawyer.

Thanks, that’s not how I would have though of it on my own, I learnt a lot :-) Marrying a witness is crazy (I assume they didn’t go through with it, but, huh… was the witness okay with the idea of getting married, or just what the …)
They did go through with it! And yeah they were already dating so she was cool with it. At first he was beaming because he thought his case would get thrown out soon enough, but I had to explain to him that spousal privilege does not apply retroactively, but even if it did it would only have protected communications made between each other and not events either would have independently witnessed. He looked earnestly surprised and crushed, and of course he didn't tell me his scheme beforehand because he know I would have told him it was idiotic.
That's surprising and I think I must be missing some context. Random Googling seems to suggest that spousal testimonial privilege applies to events before the marriage, at least in federal court - if he did legally marry his girlfriend, she shouldn't have had to testify at his trial if she didn't want to. Different states do treat spousal privilege differently, though, but am I missing something else? Did the police learn something from the girlfriend before the marriage that the prosecution can use in court without having her testify?
It depends on the jurisdiction. Some states only recognize "marital communications" privilege which means whatever is going to be barred has to be something that was disclosed within the sanctity of wedded communications. States also differ on whether the privilege must be raised by the witness or by the defendant.
Ah. It turns out that I was mistaken in thinking that the 5th Amendment guaranteed the right to refuse to testify against one's spouse; the text of the amendment doesn't mention spouses at all. (Mandela effect strikes again?)

“Well, when we first met, you told me that you never touched the gun,” I reminded him with an encouraging smile. “Obviously you wouldn’t lie to your own lawyer, and so what I can do is get a fingerprint expert to come to the jail, take your prints, then do a comparison on the gun itself. Since you never touched the gun, the prints won’t be a match! This whole case will get dismissed, and we can put all this behind you!”

For the record, I am now imagining you as Bob Odenkirk while you're delivering that line.

Not gonna lie, I admire Saul Goodman and his (non-illegal) courtroom antics. The first season of Better Call Saul was also a highly authentic vignette into public defender life.
Did you ever get one of your clients to use the "Your honor, I'm very sorry, I'll never do it again" line?
Not that exact line, but that notion is communicated all the time. You can imagine that it's not very convincing.

(With a nod to SBF). What kind of criminal mastermind creates a Signal chat group called "wirefraud"? are you going to try and tell me there was a perfectly innocent explanation?

Out of context, I could totally believe someone would use that name for a chat room as a joke. Then again, I'm the kind of guy who can barely keep himself from offering to tell bomb jokes to airport security.

People are frequently idiots. They can also be idiots who also don't trust their public defender - or know how to trust a public defender.

And due to obvious selection effects, such people are most likely to end up in need of one. Must be a delightful job...

What do you think the internal experience of these liars is like? I could believe that some of them have gotten a lot of practice with fooling themselves in order to fool others, in settings where doing so is adaptive. Do you think they would get different polygraph results than the believer in the invisible dragon hypothetically would?

I think they fully know they're lying about the facts. Where I'm more inclined to believe they've achieved self-deception is within the realm of positive thinking and unshakeable confidence about their anticipated results. Many of my clients seem to earnestly believe that their antics will get their case dismissed or somehow overturned on appeal, but that seems to be a coping strategy necessary to cope with the unimaginable torture of the upcoming years in prison.

Any recommendations for other places where lawyers write about their daily experiences?

Baby, I'm the only one you need. The closest author I found would be the The Secret Barrister from the UK.
You can probably walk into a random law office and ask the attorney to tell you war stories. There’s a lot of supply for that and very little demand.

I imagine a criminal defense attorney gets lied to more than Dr. House.

The LessWrong Review runs every year to select the posts that have most stood the test of time. This post is not yet eligible for review, but will be at the end of 2025. The top fifty or so posts are featured prominently on the site throughout the year. Will this post make the top fifty?

Nit: I found myself not knowing what various words in the post mean (marionette, chicanery) and not being super comfortable with others (surreptitiously). I strongly suspect that a non-trivial proportion of other readers are in the same boat and that using simpler words would be an improvement (see Write Simply by Paul Graham).

I know all of those words. I'm not super-comfortable with "chicanery", but it didn't cause any issues with my reading. Please click [agree] on my comment if you know all three words and [disagree] if there is at least one you don't know.
I appreciate the feedback but it's a tension with no obvious answer. Writing simply is a much higher priority for my argumentative writing, where clarity takes precedence. Simplicity takes a backseat for my story-telling prose because the aim is painting an aesthetic collage with my words as much as it is conveying information. There are small poetic touches that I treasure and I would think others would also appreciate. I could have used puppet instead of marionette, but it makes me picture something out of Sesame Street where the puppeteer is below the puppet, in contrast with a puppeteer hovering above a marionette. The word was also a nod to Pinocchio, everyone's favorite fictional liar. Similar with chicanery, which in the original 17th century French meant "quibbling on minor points of law brought up to complicate a judicial case". I didn't actually know this at the time but the word had the right "cloak and dagger" type of vibe I was looking for. And I also have to admit there is definitely a self-serving dimension as well. English is my third language and one I didn't fully learn until I moved to the US at the age of 10, so I get a kick from showing off my vocabulary.
8Adam Zerner
Very good point. I mistakenly assumed that the only goal is to communicate one's ideas, but in retrospect it is obvious that things like -- I'm not sure how to describe this. Aesthetics? Artfulness? How well it flows? -- matter as well, and that such things are a big part of what you were going for in this post. Therefore I take back what I said and think it makes a lot of sense to use colorful, non-simple words. I'm glad I learned this. I'm going to keep it in mind when I read things and hopefully incorporate it into my own writing as well.
For balanced feedback, I enjoyed the choice of diction, and particularly those two words. Trivia: in racetracks, a "chicane" is a random "unnecessary" kink or twist inserted to make it more complicated (and more challenging/fun).
L A Y E R S of happy little accidents

You write somewhere here in the comments, that those clients who are telling the truth are new to the system (or innocent, but those do not interest me now) while most lies come from repeated offenders. Shouldn't it be the opposite ? Shouldn't the experienced ones have, well, the experience, that telling truth to their lawyer gives them better results ? What if they tried and did not see the difference ? Combine it with your often repeated feeling, that you are useless. And your article about 11 words, which describes a situation, when you dramatically hel... (read more)

You would think that the revolving door would help repeat offenders wisen up through experience, but the overriding effect is that they're repeat offenders precisely because they lack the capacity to wisen up. What happened with 11 magic words is too arcane and unpredictable to "game". It mystified even me, and I've had the experience of going through criminal proceedings magnitudes more times than even my most decorated clients. I've commented here to a similar question but gaining my sympathy through lying is 1) not likely to be consequential and 2) very likely to backfire.

You say that lying to you can only hurt them but "There is a kernel of an exception that is almost not worth mentioning" because it is rarely relevant. I find this pretty hard to believe. If your client tells you "yeah I totally robbed that store, but I was wearing a ski mask and gloves so I think a jury will have reasonable doubt assuming my friends say I was playing video games with them the whole time", would you be on board with that plan? There must be plenty of cases where the cops basically know who did it but have trouble proving it. Maybe those just don't get to the point of a public defender getting assigned?

If a client tells me they know for sure that their alibi witness will be lying in their favor, then I'm not allowed to elicit the false testimony from that witness. If they admit to me to robbing the store but (truthfully and without omissions) say they were wearing a mask and functional gloves, then that lets me know what facets to focus on and what to avoid. If they're sure enough they left no fingerprints, then I can comfortably ask the investigating detectives if any fingerprints were found. If the circumstances allow it, then I may even get my own expert to dust the entire scene for fingerprints with the aim of presenting their absence as exculpatory evidence to the jury. Keep in mind that my job is not to help the government prosecute my client. And yes, there are plenty of cases where the perpetrator might be obvious from a common-sense perspective, but it would be legally difficult to prove in court.
So, then it seems like the client's best move in this scenario is to lie to you strategically, or at least omit information strategically. They could say "I know for sure you won't find any fingerprints or identifiable face in the camera footage" and "I think my friends will confirm that I was playing video games with them", and as long as they don't actually tell you that's a lie, you can put those friends on the stand, right?
Correct, there are indeed potential advantages to lying to your attorney under very specific and narrow circumstances. You also have to consider the risky gamble this presents because you can't predict every aspect of the machinery. Maybe the jury never would've paid attention to the alibi aspect of the case, but if the alibi witnesses get exposed as liars by the prosecution, that alone could swing jurors from acquittal and towards conviction.

So for my sake and theirs, I do my homework. I corroborate. I investigate.


I get that a lot of people are concerned about this post due to the unabashedly displayed contempt for the clients, but anyone who has the slightest sense of what it's like to be a public defender knows that this is basically normal and not really preventable and part of being human. If you were there, you'd probably be feeling the exact same (although if you're the type who somehow doesn't feel contempt under these kinds of circumstances, that could indicate a much better perso... (read more)

I hope it was crystal clear that if I had any contempt, it was strictly reserved to the clients who feebly but blatantly lied to me. Even then, being lied to happens so often that it only bothers me when it's persistent and pervasive past the point of it being funny.
Ah, sorry, I probably should have explained something important: around a decade or so ago, Lesswrong people and others noticed that the act of finding and justifying contempt for Acceptable Targets was actually an unexpectedly serious flaw in the human brain. It looks kinda bad on the surface (causing global conflict and outgrouping and all), but it's actually far, far worse. I think this might have been noticed around the time of the rise of wokeness, and when EA started getting closer to the rationalist movement (EAs, too, often felt intense negative emotions about people who aren't "getting with the program", although now that they know about it, most know to mitigate the effect). The rabbit hole for this is surprisingly deep, and different Lesswrong users have different stances on the human drive for search and justification of Acceptable Targets. You basically walked into invisible helicopter blades here; I'm not sure what could have possibly have been done to avoid it.

That's interesting, I was not aware of this dynamic. Were there any particular posts that served as a good summary or lodestar for people's stances on this topic?

As a relative outsider and with the job I have (and also fully acknowledging the self-serving aspect of what I'm about to say) this strikes me as a naive and self-destructive position to hold. People in the real world lie, cheat, manipulate, and exploit others, and it seems patently obvious to me that we need mechanisms to discourage that behavior. A culture of disdain towards that conduct is only one aspect of that fight.

Never mind, I think it's more of an EA thing than a Lesswrong thing. If you're more focused on rationality than effective altruism then I'm not sure how helpful it will be. Behavior discouraging mechanisms are of course a basic feature of life, but reality is often more complicated than that. I think that the lodestar post is Social Dark Matter, which as a public attorney you'll probably find pretty interesting anyway even though it's long.
8Neel Nanda
This is not a LessWrong dynamic I've particularly noticed and it seems inaccurate to describe it as invisible helicopter blades to me
(I also don't really get what trevor is talking about)

As a British person, I am strictly forbidden from revealing what the jury deliberations were in any particular case.


However, in general terms: these guys are, usually, idiots. Sometimes innocent idiots whose act of monumental stupidity led to them being accused of a crime they did not commit, but still: idiots.


There is a third possibility that can, in theory, be encountered: everyone is lying. Prosecution witnesses, defense witnesses, all of them: lying. Imagine that the prosecution case rests entirely on some tall story about Ritchie Bottoms. ... (read more)

-2Michael Roe
Also, under British rules the judge can halt a case and instruct the jury to acquit. E.g. if the prosecution witness, under cross-examination, admits that their story about Ritchie Bottoms isn't true, (and hence, the prosecution does not have a case), the judge can just stop the trial right there and instruct the jury to acquit.