I have previously posted about how GM’s lawyers may have done their client–and the public–a disservice by stifling early concerns about the auto maker’s handling of safety concerns. (How Overlegalization Causes Irresponsibility And What You Can Do About It.) A front-page story in Friday’s The Wall Street Journal suggests that the lawyers may have done themselves a disservice as well. The story is titled: “Prosecutors Probe Lawyers at GM”.
According to the Journal, government prosecutors are investigating whether GM’s internal lawyers, as well as external counsel, mislead regulators about problems with faulty ignition switches in the Chevy Cobalt, which lead to at least 13 deaths and 54 injuries. The criminal investigation into the conduct of the GM lawyers is in its early stages, and may not lead to any prosecutions.
The story, however, raises the issue of responsible decision-making by those with fiduciary responsibilities to represent the interests of others. Attorneys have the obligation to be zealous advocates for their clients. That duty is so great that deception and misdirection is considered a basic tool in the lawyers’ tool kit when it comes to negotiations and litigation.
But advocates for a client also have obligations to society at large. Due to conflicted self-interest and other decision-making biases, the line between ethical advocacy and unethical conduct becomes narrow. Only time will tell whether the GM lawyers outright crossed a bright line and lied to the government, or whether they became so caught up in their advocacy that they slid down the proverbial slippery slope. We will watch developments. And future posts will explore the ethical dilemmas facing those whose role is as an advocate for others.