“Be Honest In The Little Things”

“Be honest in the little things. Don’t cheat on your expense reports. Pay Social Security taxes on your nanny.”

I got this advice on my first day of law school, in my first class (Civil Procedure, or Civ Pro), from my first professor (Kent Syverud, now dean of Washington University Law School). This was August of 1990, several years before Zoe Baird withdrew as President Clinton’s nominee for attorney general after it was revealed that she failed to pay Social Security taxes on her nanny and chauffer.

The topic of honesty isn’t on the syllabus for Civ Pro. But as Professor Syverud told us that day, we’ll all be given chances to cheat, and if we practice honesty in the little things, chances are we won’t find ourselves being dishonest in the big things. And because every law student is required to take Civ Pro, he used his class to make sure we all heard that message in a setting that we’d remember.

Every time I fill out an expense report, Professor Syverud’s words come back to me. His message echoed in my mind again this week when two more multi-million dollar financial frauds and potential suicides (Russ Wasendorf of Peregrine Financial, and Aubrey Lee Price of Montgomery Bank & Trust) were revealed. How does anyone justify stealing from people who trust them, or live with themselves knowing that they’ve stolen millions of dollars from their clients?

I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that they started by being dishonest in the little things, and it grew from there. Maybe they never had a Professor Syverud in their lives. I feel very lucky that I did.

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