Legal Ethics Law, Rules, and Commentary: Where to Look
LACBA Update, January 2001
By Ira Spiro and Diane Karpman, LACBA Professional Responsibility & Ethics Committee. Spiro practices business and real estate law with Grebow, Yee & Spiro of Century City. He is a member of the ethics committees of the State Bar of California and LACBA, and a member of the Administrative Office of the Courts’ working group drafting ethics standards for court-connected mediators. Karpman of Karpman & Associates in L.A. is a frequent expert consultant and witness in legal ethics and malpractice matters, and represents attorneys in disciplinary matters. She is chair of LACBA’s Professional Responsibility & Ethics Committee and past president of the Association of Professional Responsibility. The opinions expressed are their own.
Looking for the answer to that confounding question of legal ethics? Here are some ways to find it.
We begin with LACBA’s own Professional Responsibility and Ethics Committee, a service to the bar that is available to all LACBA members. The committee’s first mission is responding to legal ethics inquiries. The committee responds in writing, sometimes by letter, sometimes by a formal ethics opinion. PREC will consider requests from LACBA members for formal opinions on ethics matters of general interest to the bar. The committee does not opine on matters of law or offer opinions for the benefit of particular clients or in response to matters presently in dispute. If you have an ethical question that you would like the committee to consider, mail your written inquiry to: Los Angeles County Bar Association, Professional Responsibility and Ethics Committee, P.O. Box 55020, Los Angeles, CA 90055-2020 or email your inquiry marked “Confidential” to firstname.lastname@example.org.(Unlike the State Bar’s Ethics Hotline, the committee doesn’t respond immediately or by telephone. However, LACBA responses are from lawyers, usually the committee as a whole, and go beyond citations to authorities.)
The California Rules of Professional Conduct are the first source any California lawyer should consult on issues of legal ethics. All U.S. District Courts and Bankruptcy Courts in California have adopted the California Rules of Professional Conduct. They are in the usual publications of the California codes, as well as the State Bar’s Web site, www.calbar.ca.gov. They are also in the State Bar’s Publication 250, the "Grey Book," an extremely handy compilation of many California ethics laws and rules, available from the State Bar.
The California State Bar Act, Busn. and Prof. Code §§ 6000 et seq. is as important as the Rules of Professional Conduct. It is in Publication 250. Section 6068 and other sections that bear on the daily practice of law are at times overlooked by the busy practitioner. Sections 6147 and 6148 govern fee agreements.
Decisions of the California State Bar Court: The State Bar Court’s Review Department publishes its decisions in the California State Bar Court Reporter, found in most large law libraries, and on LEXIS and Westlaw. Bar association ethics opinions are not binding but are often cited by the courts. Those from California bar associations, including LACBA, "should be consulted for guidance," and those from outside California, such as ABA opinions, "may also be considered." (Rule of Professional Conduct 1-100(A).)
The official ethics opinions of the California State Bar are written by its Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct, "COPRAC." The opinions are on the State Bar’s Web site, www.calbar.ca.gov, in the California Compendium on Professional Responsibility (below), and in the Daily Appellate Report of the Daily Journal.
Ethics Opinions of Local Bar Associations are written by the bar associations in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, and San Francisco Counties. They are published in the Compendium. The L.A. opinions are also at the LACBA Web site,
www.lacba.org/resources/tools-documents/ethics-opinions, and in LACBA’s Los Angeles Lawyer magazine.
California has not adopted the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Nevertheless, they are often persuasive authority and are within the "may also be considered" language of RPC 1-100(A). They can be obtained from the ABA headquarters in Chicago, or from the ABA’s Web site, for a fee, and are on the Cornell Web site (below).
The State Bar publishes the California Compendium on Professional Responsibility. It contains the ethics opinions of the State Bar and the four local bar associations above, other materials on ethics, and a very comprehensive and useful index. The State Bar also publishes a very detailed client trust account handbook. The State Bar’s Web site also publishes Ethics Alert — Common Dilemmas Faced by Lawyers and A Guide to Attorney Advertising. The State Bar’s Ethics Hotline, by telephone, gives citations to ethics authorities pertinent to a caller’s inquiry (800) 238-4427.
Treatises, Web Sites, Law Reviews and Other Materials
• The American Law Institute has completed its Final Draft of a new edition of the Restatement of the Law Governing Lawyers.
• California Practice Guide — Professional Responsibility (Rutter Group, 1999).
• Lawyers Manual on Professional Conduct, an extensive compilation and treatise published by the ABA and BNA.
• Perhaps the best known law review dedicated to legal ethics is the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics.
• A well-known treatise is Mallen and Smith, Legal Malpractice, with a new edition scheduled for publication in Dec., 2000.
• There have been many CLE seminars on legal ethics. Sometimes the seminar materials are still available and can be obtained from the CLE providers and sometimes from the authors directly, who can usually be reached through the providers.
Important legal ethics Web sites:
• ABA Center for Professional Responsibility: www.abanet.org/cpr/home.html. Among other things, it contains the most recent report of the ABA’s "Ethics 2000" committee, which is studying proposed revisions of the ABA’s Model Rules.)
• American Legal Ethics Library of Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, www.law.cornell.edu/ethics. Contains ethics rules of each state, and Shepard’s Annotated California Rules of Professional Conduct.
• Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers: www.aprl.net
• Findlaw, Ethics and Professional Responsibility: www.findlaw.com/01topics/14ethics
• Internet Legal Services: www.legalethics.com/index.law, particularly good for issues of ethics and technology, it also has many ethics opinions from other states.
• National Organization of Bar Counsel: www.nobc.org
• An extremely useful site, particularly for very recently released opinions, is Jeff Flax’s Law Related Resources: jflax.com/law.htm