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Understanding Attorney Ethics – Rules Every Client Should Know

Attorney ethics, also known as professional responsibility, are regulated by state and federal laws. This article examines some of the key attorney ethics rules every client should know.

Compliance with these Rules depends primarily upon understanding and voluntary compliance, secondarily on reinforcement by peer and public opinion, and finally on enforcement through disciplinary proceedings.


Whether you’re working with a lawyer, doctor, or therapist, there are certain expectations of privacy. Confidentiality is an important rule of attorney ethics that protects privileged information and prevents professionals from sharing entrusted secrets without express consent.

Jeanne Marie Clavere, professional responsibility counsel for the Washington State Bar Association, spends much of her time fielding technical questions about the meaning and scope of attorney ethical obligations. She also teaches CLEs and helps well-meaning lawyers evaluate their options when they face an ethical dilemma.

Most attorneys understand the broad outlines of their duty to maintain confidentiality, but some may not fully appreciate its full implications. This is one of the reasons why it’s essential that every state has a code of ethics to help guide attorneys and resolve moral and ethical dilemmas. A strict adherence to ethical standards is vital for the credibility of legal professionals and the court system as a whole.

Fee Agreements

Virtually all difficult ethical problems arise from conflicting responsibilities arising out of the context of law practice. Although the Rules of Professional Conduct set out a framework for these conflicts, compliance with them depends on understanding and voluntary commitment, reinforcement by peer and public opinion and, in some cases, enforcement through disciplinary proceedings.

In most states, the rules concerning fees allow lawyers to charge for their time but prohibit them from charging unreasonable amounts. However, there are some exceptions, especially if the lawyer is using staff to help with the case. For instance, a legal assistant can be billed for her time so long as it is disclosed and the fee is not clearly excessive.

The most difficult problems usually arise when a lawyer opposes a former client in a substantially related matter and might have confidential information about that client. In such cases, the lawyer must consult with that client to determine whether a conflict exists and obtain his consent.

Conflicts of Interest

Attorneys take a vow to uphold their state’s code of ethics. These codes are put in place to ensure that attorneys follow the law, pursue justice, and zealously advocate for their clients’ best interests.

One of the biggest attorney ethics issues revolves around conflicts of interest. These issues can be both real or perceived and arise when a private interest interferes with a public duty. Examples include taking bribes, self-dealing, insider trading, nepotism, and using a position of trust to benefit friends or family.

If an attorney believes they have a conflict of interest, they are required to disclose it and obtain consent from their existing clients. However, even if it’s not actually a conflict of interest the lawyer must disclose the potential for a conflict and explain how they intend to proceed in order to maintain their ethical duties. Unless it is impossible to do so, a lawyer should not represent multiple clients with actual or potentially conflicting interests, even with informed consent.

Reporting Misdeeds

Attorneys are expected to act as professionals and comply with the ethical rules that establish the code of conduct for legal practitioners. This system of professionalism makes the practice of law a profession rather than simply a trade. It requires that attorneys communicate honestly and fully even about embarrassing or legally damaging information.

For example, a lawyer may not knowingly advise clients to commit crimes or fraud. He or she also must disclose the foreseeable consequences of certain courses of action.

The legal industry is regulated by the legislature, courts and state bars that enforce the codes and rules of ethics. Each state bar has a staff of attorney ethics counsel who help members understand and apply these rules to their practices. The counsel can provide guidance on how to avoid a misstep and, in the case of serious misconduct, help an attorney through a disciplinary process. The counsel’s insights can also serve as a defense against a professional responsibility complaint later on.

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