I gave my students an assignment to reflect in writing on how they'd handle a situation in which they missed the statute of limitations on a claim. In providing the scenario, I planted a typical rationalization by suggesting that, when this has happened in practice, some lawyers just tell the client the case isn't going forward because the case wasn't strong enough.
Most recognized the rationalization might bring short-term relief but lead to long-term consequences. A surprising number of students recognized that the result of lying to a client could, and likely would, affect how they viewed themselves as persons. In other words, they connected acts such as this with diminishing self-esteem. Most were honest enough to recognize the temptation for the easy way out but that, in the end, the best course was the hard one--to tell the client of his/her mistake.
The students all recognized that this would open them to malpractice liability. I advised them that, though we hope such mistakes don't happen or are rare, the reason for having malpractice is to protect the client and the lawyer in just such situations. Calling their malpractice insurance carrier to ensure coverage was something most of the students hadn't thought about.
I'll now pass on to the students some studies that reflect that, when physicians admit their fault to patients, the incidence of malpractice suits is actually lower than if the doctor avoids doing so. Would such a phenomenon occur with lawyers? Some would say "no" because physicians are held in higher regard. I'm not so sure. Not that physicians are held in higher regard--I do think they are these days. I'm just not sure whether the same phenomenon would occur if lawyers owned their mistakes and expressed true regret to clients.
Either way, I'm encouraged that most of my students seemed to appreciate the implications of lying to the client. Some would say they were telling me what I wanted to hear, but I don't grade on that basis. Plus, the degree to which the students' reflections appreciated the consequences not only to themselves but to others suggested the work was genuine. Of course, when the student becomes a lawyer and is faced with temptations, what he or she says now may not be what she does then. But engaging in the process of reflecting on such dilemmas, and how one would respond, very well could encourage the student-become-lawyer to do the right thing.
The next assignment: How to keep multiple "checks" in place to meet deadlines, especially statutes of limitation!