A Complete Guide to the Lawyer Code of Ethics

What is a Code of Ethics?

When talking about a code of ethics within a business, the Houston Chronicle says that, “a well-written code of ethics should give guidance to employees on how to deal with certain ethical situations.” It can be as short as ten simple rules (like Kraft’s code of ethics), or it can be elaborated by a 16-page document (like Verizon Wireless).

Take a look at these resources to see more about how different companies and professions form a code of ethics, and how you would go about forming one yourself:

Lawyer Code of Ethics

The legal field feels a unique pressure to ensure that they remain above reproach, as demonstrated by these opening lines of the New York Lawyer’s Code of Professional Responsibility: “The continued existence of a free and democratic society depends upon recognition of the concept that justice is based upon the rule of law…” Lawyers, in turn, are guardians of that law. Therefore, their code ethics is unquestionably strict. Below are three areas of a lawyer’s professional responsibility:

Client-Lawyer Relationship. As the American Bar Association states so emphatically, trust “is the hallmark of the client-lawyer relationship.” Here are some of the rules that solidify this:

  1. A lawyer cannot reveal information given to them by the client (American Bar Association).
  2. A client has a right to their lawyer’s “undivided loyalty uncompromised by conflicts of interest” (New York State).
  3. While a lawyer offers advice and expertise, the client has the last say on the goals of their case (Ohio Supreme Court – PDF).
  4. A lawyer is required to give their honest opinion about the likely consequences of a client’s actions (Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct).
  5. A lawyer is forbidden from sharing information about the client, including any wrongdoing they have committed, with a few exceptions (State Bar of Georgia).

Transactions with Persons Other Than Clients. Not only do clients have certain rights, but lawyers are also obligated to protect the rights of those who are not their clients:

  1. Lawyers have to be truthful in their statements to others, even those who aren’t a client (Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct – PDF).
  2. If a person has hired a lawyer, other lawyers are legally obligated to communicate through that lawyer and are not allowed to contact the individual directly (Virginia State Bar).
  3. A lawyer cannot provide legal counsel to a person whose interests conflict with their client (New Hampshire Rules of Professional Conduct).
  4. When talking to a person who does not have legal representation, a lawyer is obligated to make it clear that they are acting in the interests of their client and not as a disinterested third party (Colorado Bar).
  5. A lawyer cannot do something that violates the legal rights of a third party or that only serves to embarrass or burden them (Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct).

Maintaining the Integrity of the Profession. With a unique responsibility to uphold justice, all lawyers are held to a high ethical standard. Here is a taste of what is required of a lawyer, and how they can be stripped of their right to practice law:

  1. Most states require prospective lawyers to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam in addition to the state bar exam before they will be allowed to practice law (National Conference of Bar Examiners).
  2. A lawyer can be disbarred for committing a misdemeanor or a felony (Washington State Legislature).
  3. A lawyer is strictly forbidden from providing false information regarding a candidate for election (Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct – PDF).
  4. A lawyer can be disciplined not only for lying, but also for omitting necessary information or for having a “reckless disregard for the truth” (Florida Bar).
  5. If a lawyer knows that another lawyer or judge has breached their state’s rules of professional conduct, they are obligated to “inform the appropriate authorities” (Nebraska Judicial Branch).

Additional Resources:

http://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/model_rules_of_professional_conduct_preamble_scope.html

https://law.duke.edu/lib/researchguides/legale/

Diana Weiss Aizman

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