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ResearchWire - A Web of Legal Ethics: Rules of Professional Conduct

By Diana Botluk, Published on February 1, 1999

Diana Botluk is an online legal information professional who lectures, teaches and writes about finding law-related information in an online environment. She is the author of The Legal List: Research on the Internet, and a columnist for Internet Law Researcher newsletter, with a column called Finding Information on the World Wide Web. She teaches basic, advanced and online legal research at the University of Maryland, and Internet classes at CAPCON Library Network. She has lectured at many professional conferences, is actively involved in the Law Librarians Society of D.C. and the American Association of Law Libraries. She is a reference librarian at Catholic University Law School, where she earned her J.D. in 1984.  James P. Botluk is the Assistant Bar Counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland. 


Introduction

Courts in every state have adopted rules governing the conduct of lawyers and have established disciplinary agencies to enforce those rules. The text of the rules is found along with other rules of court. Court rules can be found on the Web. Look at Genie Tyburski's Litigator's Internet Resource Guide: Rules of Court for guidance and links to the court rules available on the Web.

The rules in virtually every state have been based on model rules drafted by the American Bar Association. In the 1960s, the ABA adopted its Model Code of Professional Responsibility. The ABA adopted its Model Rules of Professional Conduct in the 1980s. The Rules of Professional Conduct have now been adopted in most states, but many states still use the older Code of Professional Responsibility instead.

Many states' ethics rules are available on the Web. The premier Web site for legal ethics information is undoubtedly Legalethics.com. It links to articles and discussion of legal ethics issues, especially where they intersect with Internet issues, such as attorney advertising, e-mail communication, and unauthorized practice of law. Legalethics.com has a page which links to any state ethics rules that can be found on the Web (http://www.legalethics.com/states.htm).

When researching these standards, keep in mind which set of rules your state has adopted. Also keep in mind that many states have chosen not to adopt certain portions of the model rules, have changed the language of some specific rules and have not necessarily adopted the ABA's changes to the model rules. The Rules of Professional Conduct establish standards for lawyer discipline, but do not set forth a standard of care for determining legal malpractice.

Ethics Opinions

The Rules of Professional Conduct provide the minimum standards of lawyer conduct, the violation of which can result in discipline. Those rules only rarely address what lawyers should do to adhere to the highest ethical and professional standards. The rules also often are rather broad, requiring competent representation or reasonable communication with the client, without addressing the specifics of how that applies to everyday practice of law. To get a better idea of how lawyers should act in particular situations, lawyers may write to the Ethics Committees of state bar associations or the American Bar Association to obtain an ethics opinion. These opinions may address such as issues of how long must a lawyer keep a client file after the case is closed, can a lawyer charge interest on his bill or accept payment by credit card, or whether a certain firm name is misleading or improper.

The bar associations then publish some of their answers to these inquiries as ethics opinions with the intent that other lawyers facing similar issues will have some guidance. Ethics opinions are just that, opinions of a group of lawyers who serve on a bar association's ethics committee. They do not have the force of law. While a court is not bound to follow the bar association's ethics opinion, courts tend to give considerable deference to the opinions. The ethics opinions are particularly helpful since they address many issues which never come before courts in disciplinary cases. Again, Legalethics.com (http://www.legalethics.com/states.htm) will be the place to look for links to online state legal ethics opinions, as well as contact information for each state's ethics commission and disciplinary agency. Summaries of recent ABA ethics opinions are available online from the Center for Professional Responsibility.

 

Internet Sites for Legal Ethics Research

Legalethics.com: (http://www.legalethics.com/home.html) links to articles, rules, and information relating to Internet ethics issues, including attorney advertising, e-mail communication, and unauthorized practice of law

American Legal Ethics Library from Cornell's Legal Information Institute: (http://www.law.cornell.edu/ethics) This collection contains state ethics rules or codes and state ethics opinions. It also provides narratives on the law of lawyering contributed by several large law firms from a variety of states.

American Bar Association: (http://www.abanet.net)  ABA’s web site describing ABA membership, entities, programs, products and publications. The ABA Center for Professional Responsibility (http://www.abanet.org/cpr/home.html) has a web site which links to information about the center and its activities. Some of the links include drafts of proposed model rules and other recommendations with a place for public comment, and links to information about the Ethics 2000 Commission. See this site for an online Directory of Lawyer Disciplinary Agencies (http://www.abanet.org/cpr/disciplinary.html).

The ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center: (http://www.abanet.org/tech/ltrc/home.html) provides information, discussion and links to other online resources about the issue of new technology, including Internet use, in the legal profession and law firms.

ABA/BNA Lawyers Manual on Professional Conduct: (http://www.bna.com/prodhome/bus/MOPC.html) Contains only two articles, not the entire text. The two articles are: 1. Analysis: Ethics of Advertising on the Internet; 2. Analysis: Ethical and Malpractice Concerns Cloud E-Mail, On-Line Advice.

National Organization of Bar Counsel:  (http://nobc.org)  This website provides attorney disciplinary resources for both the legal community and the public. It includes a national directory or bar counsel contact information, recent court decisions on attorney discipline, and an online forum where members can discuss attorney discipline issues.

Court TV Lawyer Check: (http://www.courttv.com/contact/newcheck.html) checks with authorities in each state to see if lawyers have had disciplinary action brought against them.

Hieros Gamos Guide to the Practice of Law:  (http://www.hg.org/practic.html)   Collection of links to Internet resources about legal ethics and practice.

Law Office Hornbook:  (http://www.hornbook.com) Created by four state bar associations, this site provides resources for information and guidance on malpractice avoidance, firm management, and lawyers' professional liability insurance, as well as the newsletter "Law Office Hornbook Report."

FindLaw’s Ethics & Professional Responsibility: (http://www.findlaw.com/01topics/14ethics/index.html) Collection of links to Internet resources about legal ethics and practice.

LEGALETHICS-L is an e-mail discussion list which focuses on attorney ethics issues. To subscribe, send an e-mail message to:  listserv@lawlib.wuacc.edu.  Leave the subject line blank. The body of the message should read:  subscribe legalethics-l Firstname Lastnam.  A message will be returned with instructions about how to post messages and how to unsubscribe from the list.

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