Introduction to Legal Ethics

Wherever, whenever, and however a legal professional practices, she is always expected to comply with strict rules and laws of ethics -- even when she is zealously engaged in challenging the same laws and rules. That’s an interesting legal dilemma to ponder -- how does a lawyer follow rules that she is actively trying to eliminate? When dealing with the laws of ethics, lawyers have to face what are sometimes awkward challenges and choices, such as:

  • When do I report misconduct and when do I keep information about the misconduct confidential?
  • Do I hand over evidence to the adversary and the court, or is that evidence confidential?
  • What can I reveal to the press? Can I make a deal to write a book about my court case?
  • May I ever advocate against a former client?
  • What decisions does the lawyer make in a case, and which decisions are for the client only?
  • May I bring a case in front of a government agency when one of my new partners just left a job with that agency?
  • May I enter into a business deal with my client?

…and a whole lot more. 

All legal professionals, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, are expected to maintain strict ethical standards – for the protection of colleagues, clients, the court, and anyone even tangentially affected by a case. The ethical rules guide lawyers in all aspects of their representation of clients. They are integral to every facet of the law and its practice – whether the lawyer is working on a case related to antitrust law, matrimonial law, or environmental law. 

Legal professionals need to know what to do when holding a client’s money. Strict guidelines preclude a legal professional from commingling his assets with a client’s trust fund. In certain states, if a lawyer is caught disbursing even one cent from a client’s account for the lawyer’s personal use, disbarment is automatic. Smart legal professionals do not dare toy with their fiduciary responsibilities to clients. 

The rules of professional responsibility serve as a roadmap to follow in many common scenarios, such as when a lawyer must withdraw from a case in the event of a conflict. As we will see, conflicts of interest tend to compromise representation, and a legal professional needs to know when these conflicts will trigger a disqualification or force a withdrawal. 

The answers to many problems of professional responsibility are rather intuitive, such as what to do if you’re asked by an unscrupulous supervisor to burn a sensitive document. Of course, the age-old defense of “just following orders” – the so-called “Nuremberg defense” – will not protect your career or reputation if you thoughtlessly do what you’re told. 

Other issues are less obvious to the uninitiated. For example, if you’re an enterprising paralegal who wants to make a few extra bucks, did you know that you are prohibited from making a deal with an attorney for a “client finder’s fee?” That is considered a form of “fee splitting,” and is disallowed between a lawyer and a non-lawyer. 

This material will explore a host of ethical issues and leave you with a better sense of how to deal with them when they invariably cross your path in the workplace.