Legal ethics

Legal ethics, principles of conduct that members of the legal profession are expected to observe in their practice. They are an outgrowth of the development of the legal profession itself[1].

In the United States

In the U.S., each state or territory has a code of professional conduct dictating rules of ethics. These may be adopted by the respective state legislatures and/or judicial systems. The American Bar Association has promulgated the Model Rules of Professional Conduct which, while formally only a recommendation by a private body, have been influential in many jurisdictions. The Model Rules address many topics which are found in state ethics rules, including the client-lawyer relationship, duties of a lawyer as advocate in adversary proceedings, dealings with persons other than clients, law firms and associations, public service, advertising, and maintaining the integrity of the profession. Respect of client confidences, candor toward the tribunal, truthfulness in statements to others, and professional independence are some of the defining features of legal ethics.

The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) is used to measure examinees' knowledge and understanding of established standards related to the professional conduct of lawyers. The MPRE is a prerequisite or corequisite to the bar examination for admission as an attorney at law in 48 of the 50 states of the United States, as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Republic of Palau. Of the 56 jurisdictions within the United States, only Maryland, Puerto Rico, and Wisconsin do not use the MPRE; however, these jurisdictions still incorporate local ethics rules in their respective bar examinations.[2]

Maynard Pirsig, published one of the first course books on legal ethics, Cases and Materials on Legal Ethics, 1949. Maynard Pirsig also published the definition of Legal Ethics, in Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974.

Some U.S. states, including New York, require applicants seeking to become attorneys to have taken a course in professional responsibility during law school.[3]


United States

Every state in the United States has a regulatory body (usually called a state bar association) that polices lawyer conduct. When lawyers are licensed to practice in a state, those lawyers subject themselves to this authority. Overall responsibility often lies with the highest court in a state (such as state supreme court). The state bar associations, often in consultation with the court, adopt a set of rules that set forth the applicable ethical duties. As of 2013, 48 states have adopted a version of the American Bar Association's model rules. California is the only state that has not adopted either—instead these states have written their own rules from scratch. There was once some debate over whether state ethical rules apply to federal prosecutors. The Department of Justice has held differing opinions through different administrations, with the Thornburgh Memo suggesting these rules do not apply, and the Reno Rules asserting that they do apply. Now, 28 U.S.C. § 530B provides that government attorneys are subject to the state ethics laws in the state in which they practice.

Lawyers who fail to comply with local rules of ethics may be subjected to discipline ranging from private (non-public) reprimand to disbarment.


In India, under the Advocates Act of 1961, the Bar Council of India is responsible for creating rules for registering advocates, regulation of legal ethics, and for administering disciplinary action.[4]


In New South Wales, reforms commencing from July 1, 2015 brought a uniform regulatory system to the legal profession regarding billing arrangements, discipline procedures and complaints handling processing.[5] An inter jurisdictional Legal Services Council was established in order to regulate the legal profession and its delivery of legal services.[6] This resulted in the creation of the Legal Profession Uniform Law Australian Solicitors’ Conduct Rules 2015[7] and the Legal Profession Uniform Conduct Barristers' Rules 2015.[8]

The States and Territories of Australia are regulated through co-regulation, self-regulation and independent regulation.


  • No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America, by Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith. ISBN 0-375-75258-7
  • California Rules of Professional Conduct, published by the Office of Professional Competence, Planning & Development of the State Bar of California.
  • Gabriel Chin & Scott Wells, Can a Reasonable Doubt have an Unreasonable Price? Limitations on Attorney's Fees in Criminal Cases, 41 Boston College Law Review 1 (1999)
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