St. Mary's Journal on Legal Malpractice & Ethics

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St. Mary's University School of Law


Marissa E. Olsen

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After hearing for the first time the lawyer-disparaging phrase, “licensed liar,” the author investigated its significance. This article presents the question of those two words’ meaning and explains how the author reached the conclusion that, as applied to attorneys, the phrase is an unmerited epithet. The phrase is known and utilized in nonlegal texts in fields such as fiction, poetry, literary criticism, and journalism, but the two words are absent from legal texts. The author’s discovery of the phrase in various criticisms of lawyers in other publications illuminates and confirms that the phrase constitutes the pejorative allegation that an attorney will engage in prevarication for clients in exchange for compensation. In tracing the history of the question of lawyer honesty, this Article shows honesty to be a persistent ethical obligation. When the essence of the phrase, a supposed willingness to speak untruths with deceptive intent for a fee, is compared to not only the persistently stated ethic of honesty in the practice of law, but also the reality of professional discipline that can result from violations, the phrase is seen to be an unjustified epithet.