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Professional Responsibility & Legal Ethics

A short guide to researching the law of professional responsibility and legal ethics.

ABA Ethics Opinions

Although not considered mandatory authority, the formal and informal opinions released by the ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility have served as a persuasive interpretation of the Model Rules for many years. Formal opinions address issues which may apply to practicing attorneys throughout the profession, while informal opinions were issued in response to a specific situation. It is worth noting that the ABA last issued an informal opinion at the end of the 1980’s, however they reserve the right to issue additional informal opinions in the future. The opinions are available in a number of resources, including Opinions of the Committee on Professional Ethics (1924-1965), and Formal and Informal Ethics Opinions (various compilations covering the period 1967-1998). 

Online availability to ABA ethics opinions is provided by Lexis+ and Westlaw Edge.  Both databases provide access to formal opinions dating back to the first formal opinion issued in 1924, and to informal opinions dating back to 1960.  The ABA website offers the full text of recent opinions and summaries of formal opinions dating back to 1984, The full text of archived are available opinions for a fee. 

State Ethics Opinions

State ethics opinions have always been an important source for researching how the rules have been applied in specific instances in their respective jurisdictions.  Attempting to locate the full text of state ethics opinions has always been a little troublesome.  Traditionally, the best source was the National Reporter on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility by Jacobstein, Mersky, and Quist.  Although selective, it is a useful compilation of ethics opinions from around the states.  Westlaw and LexisNexis now provide access to various state ethics opinions, although neither database provides coverage for more than a select number of jurisdictions. More recently, a number of state bar associations have released the full text of their ethics opinions on their websites.  It should be noted that a number of state bars only provide access to this material to bar members, or, if access is provided to non-members, charge a fee for this service.

Disciplinary Proceedings

Locating lawyer disciplinary proceedings constitutes a real challenge to the legal researcher.  The challenge is largely a byproduct of the huge variation between jurisdictions in the publication of the results of the proceedings.  In some states the results are digested in the state bar journal, while other states have no formal publication method for these decisions.  The results of the proceedings are, however, often reflected in the information contained in the individual state’s lawyer disciplinary database.  More and more states are making this information available to the public on the disciplinary board’s website (usually this is under the authority of the state bar or the state supreme court).  The ABA Center for Professional Responsibility provides a useful list of contact information for the various state disciplinary agencies on their website.  The ABA has compiled disciplinary information from the various states into one national database; the National Lawyer Regulatory Data Bank, which is available for a fee on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility website.