Code of Professional Responsibility in the United States
Rules that govern the conduct of attorneys. The Code of Professional Responsibility was written and is periodically revised by the American Bar Association. The code contains general provisions on ethical conduct as well as more detailed rules that apply to particular situations. The rules contained in the code, also known as the Canons of Professional Ethics, speak to several categories of issues. One category addresses the lawyer-client relationship. Lawyers are admonished to represent their clients “zealously” but within the limits of the law. Another canon urges the exercise of fully independent judgment on behalf of a client. A lawyer is advised to avoid multiple client or business relationships that impair the capacity to make independent professional judgments for a client. Lawyers are also instructed to preserve the confidence of clients. This rule creates the attor- ney-client “privilege,” which prevents lawyers from disclosing at trial the content of communications with a client. The code also speaks to the lawyers’ obligation to the public. Attorneys must assist in maintaining the integrity and competence of the profession, in making legal representation as available to the public as possible, and in improving the legal system in general.
Analysis and Relevance
The Code of Professional Responsibility dates back to 1907 with revisions having been made several times since. Provisions of the code, or language closely parelleling the code, have been adopted in every state, typically through order of the state supreme court. There are sanctions for violations of code provisions. Charges of lawyer misconduct are primarily judged by other lawyers. Enforcement of the adopted code language is the responsibility of the state supreme courts, but much of the disciplinary process has been delegated to state bar associations. Special committees of the state bar respond to complaints or grievances filed against particular lawyers. These grievances typically come from clients, but can come from others. Following an investigation, the bar committee may bring formal charges against a lawyer and conduct a hearing. The committee may recommend disciplinary action, including suspension or permanent disbarment. Action on such disciplinary recommendations must be taken by the state supreme court. A wide range of sanctions is available. The least severe is a private reprimand, with suspension or disbarment reserved for serious misconduct. Recent concern about legal ethics and attorney performance has prompted law schools to require courses in legal ethics. In addition, a number of states have established special funds to compensate victims of unethical attorneys.