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Should lawyers always follow orders?

Sometimes, a client’s best interests should override their instructions
Should lawyers always follow orders?
Photo by Dushan Milic

Should a lawyer follow a client’s instructions if the lawyer believes doing so would seriously endanger a client’s best interests? Or can a lawyer ethically ignore dangerous instructions and do something different, something the lawyer thinks will lead to a better result, despite the client’s objections?

In 2010, the state of Louisiana, a death penalty state, charged Robert McCoy with three murders. The evidence against McCoy was overwhelming. Larry English was his lawyer. English’s strategy was to concede that McCoy committed the murders but argue that McCoy’s mental state prevented him from forming the intent required for a first-degree murder conviction. McCoy insisted he was innocent and said the murders had been committed by corrupt police in a drug deal gone wrong (this was not even remotely plausible). Against McCoy’s violent and frequent objections, English, hoping to save McCoy’s life, told the court McCoy had committed the murders but was crazy and lived in a fantasy world. “My client committed three murders,” he said. “The evidence that will be put on that screen, that will come from that stand will say that he did it. Mr. McCoy has seen that evidence, but yet he — in all of his soul he does not believe he committed these crimes . . . But in layman terms, Mr. McCoy is crazy, ladies and gentlemen.” The jurors were not impressed by this line of argument. They found McCoy guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.

McCoy found another lawyer and sought a new trial. (Larry English went into a deep depression and gave up the practice of law.) The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that McCoy’s lawyer had authority to concede his guilt despite McCoy’s opposition. The case went to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held six to three (Ruth Bader Ginsburg giving judgment for the majority, justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr. and Neil Gorsuch dissenting) that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. constitution guarantees a defendant the right to choose the objective of his defence and to insist that his counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. The Sixth Amendment, said Ginsburg, “speaks of the ‘assistance’ of counsel, and an assistant, however expert, is still an assistant.” She continued: “When a client makes it plain that the objective of ‘his defence’ is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts and pursue an acquittal, his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt.” The Supreme Court ordered that McCoy be granted a new trial.

In the summer months, I sit on my porch in Nova Scotia and look out at the sea. Sometimes, friends from elsewhere come to stay for a few days. Occasionally, a lawyer drops in (I still have a few lawyer friends, despite that book on the legal profession that I published a decade ago). I asked one of them — a very smart criminal defence lawyer from Yellowknife — what she thought of the McCoy decision. “No-brainer,” she said. “Ginsberg is right. In Canada, we don’t have the constitutional issue, and there’s no capital punishment, but forget all that. The basic principle is the same. The lawyer is an assistant and is there to take instructions.” A very senior and grizzled Toronto litigator seemed surprised I’d even ask about this. “Of course, the lawyer should do what his client tells him,” he said, “provided perjury is not involved. If the lawyer doesn’t want to do what the client tells him, he should fire the client.”

But is it really that clearcut? 

If you’re in trouble and badly need legal help and seek that help, isn’t it implicit that you are giving up some of your decision-making autonomy and handing it over to your lawyer? How much sense does it make to go to a lawyer — or a doctor or any professional — and then ignore their advice?

If you’re a lawyer and believe that you know the best course of action for your client, should you follow their contrary wishes if they are self-destructive and based on ignorance and — in your view — will lead to disaster? English, McCoy’s lawyer, is quoted by The New York Times as saying, “When you’re in a courtroom fighting for someone’s life, you bring every skill and trick of the trade to save that person’s life.” A lawyer friend of English commented, “Larry kept saying to me that he didn’t want this boy to die on his watch. He felt the jury had death in their eyes.” Later, when he was no longer practising law, English said, “The greatest thing I ever did as a lawyer, and the most important thing I ever did as a lawyer, was to take Robert McCoy’s case.”

Does a lawyer have responsibilities even greater than his responsibility to his client — responsibilities to principle and to the justice system? English certainly thought so. He told The New York Times, “The criminal justice system in this country is so racked by racism and classism that there is no way the death penalty can be implemented in a way that’s constitutional. Being a criminal lawyer in the American justice system is like doing triage for black men. By the time they get to you, you’re dealing with the effects of absent fathers and poverty. They are 19 years old and about to go to jail for 20 years. All these lives are coming in, and you are doing everything you can to save them. It was my way of fighting the system.”

Is a lawyer just an assistant? I don’t think so. Lawyers have responsibilities other than slavishly following instructions. They have a responsibility to pursue their client’s best interests as they see them. And they have a responsibility to seek justice.

A collection of these columns, How To Be Good: The Struggle Between Law & Ethics, was published in 2017.

  • integrity

    john jerome
    Lawyers have a deep sense of integrity, it comes from believing in the justice system. This is why it is so important to make sure the justice system isn't corrupted. See John Lockyer at lcp-law.com