On Lawyers, the Law, Truth and Perceptions

"Perceptions are powerful things. They shape our worldview. They energize us emotionally and move us to action. But they are not facts – they are the vehicles through which we perceive facts. Perceptions contain some truths, but rarely the entire truth." - WMU-Cooley Ethics Professor Victoria Vuletich

IMG_3105As evidenced by the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project operated by my law school, and the many others, innocent people are sometimes convicted and incarcerated by well-intended juror citizens, not on facts, but on perceptions. The “facts” of DNA evidence have ultimately exonerated these unfortunate people who were convicted on perceptions of what is the “truth.”

The truth is often quiet. It does not shout for your attention. And finding the truth takes work – a commitment to a process requiring diligence, self-discipline and, most importantly, always being open to the possibility that your perceptions may be inaccurate.

We live in an age driven more by perceptions than truth. Too many individuals in the institutions necessary for a productive society are happy to peddle perceptions. The television, and some written, media gloss over certain facts to feed and confirm our preferred worldviews – be they “red or blue.” Our elected officials on both sides of the aisle spin and promote perceptions that they want us to adopt, so we are distracted from facts and truth they do not want us to see. They get us “fired up” because perceptions are emotion based and easily accessible.

Our forefathers who created the Constitution, the foundation of our society, understood that perceptions are part of human nature, and indeed, are likely necessary. But as they wisely discerned, no healthy society can thrive without a system based on integrity of process, truth and the rule of law. In our system, no person, even those of wealth, privilege and power, is above the law. But that rule of law must be based on truth and facts and applied with integrity.

These principles of integrity of process, truth and the rule of law are undermined every day through the dissemination of widespread shouted perceptions and the persistence of individuals unwilling to consider that they might be wrong in their perceptions. Individuals on both sides of the aisle, citizens in red and blue America and certain media outlets are too willing to pander in perceptions and not facts, choosing to avoid the hard work and discomfort of looking for the truth and considering that their perceptions might be wrong.

In Senator John McCain we are about to lose a shining example of a leader devoted to the principles of fair process, the rule of law, the search for the truth and governing “from the center.” President Gerald R. Ford exemplified and applied these same principles at a time of crisis in our nation. History with its long lens of time passed has proven that he was right in his approach.

As an ethics lawyer and law school professor I have spent virtually my entire career working to protect and promote the integrity of the legal system and the lawyers who have their hands on its levers. My law school, and all other law schools around the nation, spend three years or more training lawyers of the future. We train them to work hard to find the quiet truth. To protect the integrity of the process. To protect the rule of law. Sometimes a tiny number of graduates disappoint their schools.

Next time you choose a media source, an elected official, or lawyer to represent you, do not ask them what their positions are on the issues or which law school they attended. Rather, look at whether they are committed to the integrity of a process that is fair to both adversaries. Look at whether they are more comfortable with truth and facts than perceptions.

The best answers will not fire you up. They will not fit in a sound bite or be the topic of the evening entertainment news networks. But they will ensure that you are choosing truth over perception and integrity of process over self interest.

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WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Victoria V. Vuletich teaches Professional Responsibility and a recent guest lecturer at the Herford College, Oxford University, in the United Kingdom. Professor Vuletich is an expert in legal ethics, the regulation of the legal profession and drafting and proposing administrative rules relating to the legal profession. She also has expertise in the restructuring of the legal profession and its implications for the profession and the public.