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What are Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility?

Legal ethics is a term used to describe a code of conduct governing proper professional behavior, which establishes the nature of obligations owed to individuals and to society. In order to maintain a license to practice law, attorneys agree to uphold the Rules of Professional Conduct, adopted by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1983. The ABA's rules have been adopted by the bar associations of all U.S. states except California, which has a similar code but with a different format (see California Rules of Professional Conduct for details).

If your attorney has violated any of these rules, or you have reason to believe your attorney has not acted in a professional manner, you should consider filing a complaint with the corresponding state bar association. For more serious violations, particularly when poor counsel results in an unfavorable outcome for your case, you might consider filing a legal malpractice lawsuit.

Terms to Know

  • Commingling: Act of mingling funds of one's beneficiary, client, employer, or ward with his or her own funds; generally considered a breach of the attorney's fiduciary responsibility.
  • Fiduciary: One often in a position of authority who obligates himself to act on behalf of another (as in managing money or property) and assumes a duty to act in good faith and with care, candor, and loyalty in fulfilling the obligation.
  • Confidentiality: The relation between lawyer and client which guarantees any information shared by the client is treated as private and as such cannot be divulged to third parties without the client's consent.

Common Violations of Legal Ethics

The ABA's Rules of Professional Conduct are numerous, some less obvious than others. In fact, lawyers often violate some of these rules on accident (such as commingling funds). The following are some of the more common legal ethics breaches:

  • Neglect and Lack of Communication: Attorneys must respond to and remain in reasonable contact with their clients, keeping them properly informed and fully explaining matters that are crucial to their respective cases.
  • Commingling: Attorneys must keep their clients' trust accounts separate from their personal or other accounts. Violations of this sort usually are due to negligence or mismanagement.
  • Solicitation: Attorneys may not be misleading, fraudulent, or deceptive in their advertising (for instance, lawyers may not use statistics or client testimonials, and must refrain from guaranteeing specific outcomes for cases).
  • Malpractice: Although these claims are very difficult to prove, lawyers may be sued if no reasonable attorney would have made the same errors (and those errors caused injury).

Related Practice Areas

Consider meeting with an attorney specializing in legal ethics and professional responsibility if you have any questions or concerns.

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