by Daniel DeWoskin
“Trust, but verify.” These immortal words of Ronald Reagan are in fact words I live by as an attorney. I have clients that will tell me things that range from the facts of their particular cases to the payment schedule to which they agree and intend to adhere. I also deal with scores of other attorneys, paralegals, court personnel, and others who tell me all sorts of things upon which I need to rely in order to see to my clients’ interests. I am a trusting person, but I always must verify that what I am trusting is in fact the truth or will come to pass.
“Trust, but verify” means exactly that. It does not mean that I have to be dubious of everything anyone tells me, but that I should have an insurance policy in place for the things that I rely on in providing my best work. Think to those critical moments in your own careers when you have stood before the Court only to have the rug pulled out from under you by opposing counsel. Think of the times that you did not check each case opposing counsel cited in his or her brief only to later learn that a pivotal case did not in fact say what he or she claimed it did. Most of us have been there at some point. It may have been a situation where we did not want to reinvent wheels and trusted the work product of a competent and trusted colleague or (heaven forbid) a boss, but had to wipe the egg off of our face when our adversary exposed our less than diligent and accurate research.
In my time as a practicing attorney, I have been guilty of this on a few occasions. I have also been guilty of trusting clients and witnesses without thoroughly vetting the information and the sources. Sometimes, there is a limit to the verification that can take place. Never once have I faulted myself for spending too much time on the verification part of the process.
There are a host of situations where our verification may not expose lies, but instead inaccuracies, misunderstandings, or misconceptions. All of these components can be at the heart of a bona fide dispute for which we were retained to address. We do not customarily adopt our clients’ positions or opinions without critical thinking and application of our own knowledge and experience, so why would we trust their factual information or perceptions without also doing what we can to avoid confusion or misunderstanding? Somehow, I still have to remind myself to verify on an almost daily basis.
It can be time consuming to verify everything we should verify as lawyers. Some things are always more important than others. As our list of priorities grows exponentially from day to day, we can get complacent about fact-checking and double-checking. One thing I am certain about, is that it is a horrible and empty feeling when the things we took for granted and relied upon too hastily turn out to be completely bogus. There is embarrassment and disappointment; it rarely matters how significant or insignificant the particular fact.
On a more positive note, many would agree that when we take the time to pour over opposing counsel’s briefs and find misstatements of law that are not trivial, our own positions take on a much more persuasive and confident tone. Once again, there is never a moment where time is wasted on checking into what we know to be true. At the very least, our verification will create a bolder understanding of our case and the nature of the law and facts at issue.
“Trust, but verify” is also an invaluable doctrine when it comes to our personal lives. Have your kids done their homework? Were thank you cards sent out promptly? When your wife said she doesn’t want anything for her birthday, was she just testing how gullible you really are? Without confessing too many occasions in which I have been a clueless moron, I think it goes without saying that verifying is equally, if not more, important than trusting in the first place.