The Ethics of Persuasion: What Is Acceptable and What Is Over the Line?



            A.        An attorney has an obligation not only to his or her client but to the court, other counsel, and the system of justice as a whole.

            B.        The attorney’s oath (SCR 40.15):

(1)       I will support the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state of Wisconsin ;

I will maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers;

I will not counsel or maintain any suit or proceeding which shall appear to me to be unjust, or any defense, except such as I believe to be honestly debatable under the law of the land;

I will employ, for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to me, such means only as are consistent with truth and honor, and will never seek to mislead the judge or jury by any artifice or false statement of fact or law;

I will maintain the confidence and preserve inviolate the secrets of my client and will accept no compensation in connection with my clients business except from my client or with my client’s knowledge and approval;

I will abstain from all offensive personality and advance no fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party or witness, unless required by the justice of the cause with which I am charged;

I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay any person’s cause for lucre or malice. So help me God.

                                    (2) Violation of the attorney’s oath is an act of misconduct subject to discipline.  (SCR 20:8.4).

            C.         Other conduct the attorney’s oath does not allow:

                        1.         Failure to maintain respect due to judicial officers.

                        2.         Advancing an unjust lawsuit.

                        3.         Misleading a judge or jury by a false statement of fact or law.

                        4.         Having an offensive personality.   

            D.        Only meritorious claims and defenses can be advanced by a lawyer.  

(SCR 20:3.1).

            E.         A lawyer’s conduct may not be disruptive to the tribunal.  (SCR 20:3.5).

            F.         Courts have inherent authority to discipline lawyers for contempt.  (Wis. Stat. § 785.01)

            G.        Violation of disciplinary rules is a separate act subject to discipline.  

(SCR 20:8.4(f)).

            H.        Disrespect for judicial officer. (SCR 20:8.2)

            I.          A lawyer may not unfairly prejudice a pending case by engaging in pre-trial publicity.  (SCR 20:3.6).

1.         “Acid test” is whether there is a “substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding.”

                        2.         Trying your case in the media or attempting to obtain an unfair advantage can result in discipline and even revocation. See In the Matter of the Discipline of Eisenberg, 144 Wis. 2d 284, 423 N.W. 2d 867 (1988).

            J.         An attorney has an obligation to expedite litigation.  (SCR 20:3.2).

                        1.         There must be a reason for delay, not just the convenience of the advocates.

                        2.         Financial benefit derived from delay is not a legitimate interest of the client which justifies failing to expedite litigation.

            K.        Obligations to the court.

                        1.         Candor to the tribunal.  (SCR 20:3.3).

                        2.         False statements of law or fact.  (SCR 40:15, SCR 20:3.3).

                        3.         Disclosure of information to the court necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by the client.  (SCR 20:3.3(a)(2)).

                        4.         Must disclose to the court authority in the controlling jurisdiction directly adverse to your client’s position which is not disclosed by opposing counsel. In an ex parte proceeding, a lawyer has an obligation to inform the court of all facts which are adverse.  (SCR 20:3.3).

                        5.         Offering false evidence.  If a lawyer offers evidence which he or she later discovers to be false, a lawyer must take reasonable or remedial measures.  (SCR 20:3.3).

                                    a.         Ask witness to recant testimony.

                                    b.         Inform court of falsehood.            

                        6.         A lawyer shall not make a false or adverse statement about the qualifications or integrity of a judge or other judicial officer.  (SCR 20:8.2).  This includes a candidate for judicial office.

                        7.         It is improper for a lawyer to seek to influence a judge by means prohibited by law.  (SCR 20:3.5).

                                    a.         Except for scheduling purposes, a lawyer may have no ex parte communications with a judge about a pending case.  (SCR 20:3.5)

                                    b.         May not represent or imply that the lawyer has any special treatment or results before any specific judge.

            L.         Obligations to Other Attorneys

                        1.         Attorney must be truthful to others.

                                    a.         Must be truthful in disclosure of potential criminal or fraudulent activities if they can be prevented by disclosure. (SCR 20:4.1; SCR 1.6).

                                    b.         Harm must be substantial to compel confidential information being disclosed.

                        2.         Lawyer may not obstruct another’s access to evidence and must generally be “fair” to opposing counsel.  (SCR 20:3.4).

                                    a.         May not destroy or conceal evidence.

                                    b.         Permit or counsel a witness to falsify evidence.

                                    c.         Make frivolous discovery requests.

                                    d.         Fail to make reasonably diligent effort to comply with a legally proper discovery request of an opposing party.

                                    e.         At trial, a lawyer may not allude to a matter which is not reasonably supported by the evidence.

                                    f.          State personal opinions as to the justness of the cause.

                                    g.         State personal opinion as to the guilt or innocence of either a civil or criminal defendant.  (SCR 20:3.4).

                                    h.         Request a person other than a client to refrain from voluntarily giving relevant information to other side.


A.        Improper Arguments

1.         Counsel cannot, against objection, make an argument to the jury which is based on facts not in evidence.  Chapman v. Keefe, 37 Wis. 2d 315, 155 N.W.2d 13 (1967).

2.         Use of a mathematical formula in arguing pain and suffering damages is improper.  See Affett v. Milw. & S.T. Corp., 11 Wis. 2d 604, 106 N.W.2d 274 (1960); Fischer v. Fischer, 31 Wis. 2d 293, 142 N.W.2d 857 (1966).  However, suggesting a lump sum for pain and suffering is fair and permissible.

3.         Reference to matters not in evidence, unless they are within the general knowledge which is clearly established by history, literature or science cannot be made.  See Brown v. Swineford, 44 Wis. 282 (1878).

4.         Use of a golden rule type of argument wherein the trial lawyer asks an individual juror to put him or herself in another place and decide what he or she should want for a particular injury to themselves or a child is impermissible.  See Rodriguez v. Slattery, 54 Wis. 2d 165, 194 N.W.2d 817 (1972).

5.         Stating damage awards in other states are higher is improper.  See Klein v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 19 Wis. 2d 507, 129 N.W.2d 885 (1963).

6.         Referring to the financial worth of a party where no claim for punitive damages exists is improper.  SeeMertens v. Lundquist, 15 Wis. 2d 540, 113 N.W.2d 149 (1962).

7.         A statement that no amount of money could compensate for death or physical injury was held to be improper in McCaffrey v. Mpls. St. P. & S. St. M.R. Co., 222 Wis. 311, 267 N.W. 326 (1936).

8.         It is improper to inform the jury of the effect of any answer to a particular question on the special verdict, i.e., that an answer “yes” to a question would result in no recovery for the plaintiff.  See Pecor v. Home Indem. Co., 234 Wis. 407, 291 N.W. 313 (1940); Kobelinski v. Milw. & S.T. Corp., 56 Wis. 2d 504, 202 N.W.2d 415 (1972).

9.         It is improper to refer to a party as a “soulless and heartless corporation.”  See Hanley v. Milw. E.R. & L.C. Co., 220 Wis. 281, 263 N.W. 638 (1935).

B.        Ethics of Closing Argument

1.         The purpose of the closing argument is to allow the trial lawyers the opportunity to convince the jury to draw favorable inferences from the evidence.

2.       Attorneys are given reasonable latitude in argumentation and comments on evidence.  See Affett v. Milw. & S.T. Corp., 11 Wis. 2d 604, 106 N.W.2d 274 (1960).  Jury arguments are considered statements of opinion by counsel.  See Kuzmic v. Kreutzmann, 100 Wis. 2d 48, 301 N.W.2d 266 (Ct. App. 1980); Herro v. DNR, 67 Wis. 2d 407, 227 N.W.2d 456 (1975).

3.       There are no standards which separate a fair argument from an unfair one. Consequently, it is the burden of the court to ensure fairness. See Fields v. Creek, 21 Wis. 2d 562, 124 N.W.2d 599 (1963).

4.       Although it is improper for an attorney to argue his or her own personal opinion of a case, see Younger v. Rosenow Paper & Supply Co., 63 Wis. 2d 548, 556-57, 217 N.W.2d 841 (1974), an attorney may argue that in his or her view the evidence supports a certain result. Lievrouw v. Roth, 157 Wis. 2d 332, 359-60, 459 N.W.2d 850, 860 (Ct. App. 1990).

                        5.         A trial court has the authority to bar arguments which it believes will confuse or mislead the jury. Herman v. Milwaukee Children’s Hosp., 121 Wis. 2d 531, 361 N.W.2d 297 (Ct. App. 1984).

C.         Supreme Court Rules that Affect Trial Conduct

            1.        SCR 20:3.3 – Candor toward the tribunal:

                         a.         A lawyer shall not knowingly:

                          (1)       make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal;

                          (2)       fail to disclose a fact to the tribunal when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by the client;

                          (3)       fail to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not discussed by opposing counsel; or

                          (4)       offer evidence that the lawyer knows to be false. If a lawyer has offered material evidence and comes to know of its falsity, the lawyer shall take reasonable remedial measure.

                         b.         The duties stated in paragraph (a) apply even if compliance requires disclosure of information otherwise protected by Rule 1.6.

                         c.         A lawyer may refuse to offer evidence that the lawyer reasonably believes is false.

d.         In an ex parte proceeding, a lawyer shall inform the tribunal of all material facts known to the layer which will enable the tribunal to make an informed decision, whether or not the facts are adverse.

            2.       SCR 20:3.5 – Impartiality and decorum of the tribunal:

                        A lawyer shall not:

                     a.         seek to influence a judge, juror, prospective juror or other official means prohibited by law;

                     b.         communicate ex parte with such a person except as permitted by law or for scheduling purposes if permitted by the court. If communication between a lawyer and judge has occurred in order to schedule a matter, the lawyer involved shall promptly notify the lawyer for the other party of the other party, if unrepresented, of such communication, or

                           c.         engage in conduct intended to disrupt a tribunal.

                        3.       SCR 20:3.1 – Meritorious claims and contentions:

                           a.         In representing a client, a lawyer shall not:

                         (1)       knowingly advance a claim or defense that is unwarranted under existing law, except that the lawyer may advance such claim or defense if it can be supported by good faith argument for extension, modification or reversal of existing law;

                         (2)       knowingly advance a factual position unless there is a basis for doing so that is not frivolous; or

                         (3)       file a suit, assert a position, conduct a defense, delay a trial or take other action on behalf of the client when the lawyer knows or when it is obvious that such an action would serve merely to harass or maliciously injure another.

                                   b.          A lawyer for the defendant in a criminal proceeding, or the respondent in a proceeding that could result in deprivation of liberty, may nevertheless so defend the proceeding as to require that every element of the case be established.