Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Researching Legal Ethics

Law students do not always learn the process of researching issues in legal ethics. This is an important skill for students to develop, as it is a complex process and requires legal resources beyond the more traditional sources, such as cases and statutes. The authority in ethical issues are the rules that govern the conduct of attorneys and judges. States adopt these rules based on model rules adopted by the ABA; the latest version of these standards is the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) and the Code of Judicial Conduct. Additionally, state and national bar associations have systems in place to enforce their rules through disciplinary proceedings and through bar interpretations in the form of opinion letters. There are both formal and informal opinions: formal opinions are those the ABA considers pertinent to a majority of attorneys, while informal opinions are issued when the ABA feels there will not be general interest.

Familiarizing yourself with the following resources will inevitably be useful to you throughout your entire legal career.

One Hundred Years of Ethics

The ABA adopted the original Canon of Professional Ethics in 1908, which was replaced by the Model Code of Professional Responsibility in 1969. This Code was then replaced by the MRPC in 1983, adopting the current arrangement of eight subject areas subdivided into many individual rules. Following each of the MRPC's Rules is a comment that analyzes the Rule.

Current Rules and Opinions

The ABA's Center for Professional Responsibility provides free access to the MRPC. Also included at this site is a listing reporting on state adoption of the Rules and links to state ethics rules and opinions. Commentary, legislative history, and a comparison of the Rules to the Restatement of the Law Third - The Law Governing Lawyers (the American Law Institute's first endeavor to sythesize ethics law).

LII's American Legal Ethics Library also provides free access to state Rules or Codes, Ethics Opinions, and Judicial Conduct Codes and other legal ethics material.

Of course, Westlaw and LexisNexis also provide access to the text of the MRPC, although Westlaw also includes the more useful annotated version.
Bloomberg BNA's ABA/BNA Lawyers' Manual on Professional Conduct is another excellent source, providing the full text of ABA formal and informal opinions and synopses of state bar ethics opinions, along with recent developments of note.

Note that state ethics rules are traditionally enacted as part of the state's statutes or the state's court rules, and can be located in these customary legal resources. Be cognizant of rule sections where the state has adopted a modification from the Model Rules.

Disciplinary Proceedings

Violating ethics rules can land an attorney in a disciplinary proceeding. Some states digest hearing results in their state bar journal; others have no formal publication process for these decisions. Analysis of ethics violations is mainly found only in appellate court opinions. The ABA/BNA Lawyer's Manual on Profressional Conduct, occasionally reports rulings from state disciplinary hearings, in its Current Reports section.

Staying Current


It is important to keep up to date on this topic by checking state bar websites for any proposed rule changes, following legal ethics blogs, such as and Legal Ethics Forum, and monitoring law journals, such as Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics and Journal of the Legal Profession.

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