In Search of Ethics
By Robert Ambrogi
WE LAST visited the subject of online resources about ethics and lawyers in May, 2000, so let's revisit key sites now that the clock has turned to 2002.
Just about any attorney practicing in the U.S. today would concur that lawyers get a bum rap. In cartoons and movies, we're frequently cast as ruthless and greedy. While there are bad apples in every profession, law is perhaps the most ethical of professions. Bound by strict codes of conduct, almost everything lawyers do from counseling clients to marketing their firms must conform to prescribed standards.
The Internet is critical to helping not just lawyers, but also the broader public, understand these rules more thoroughly. Conduct codes and ethics opinions from a majority of states are available on the Web, and a growing number of ethics sites bring perspective to these standards.
One of the best of these is the American Legal Ethics Library, from Cornell's Legal Information Institute. This digital library contains the full text of or links to the professional-conduct codes of most U.S. states, as well as the American Bar Association's model code.
In addition, major law firms are contributing narratives on professional-conduct law in their respective states, with 16 states and the District of Columbia covered so far.
The library's materials are organized by both state and topic, and all are fully searchable. Each element of the library is linked to the rest of the collection in multiple ways, permitting a user to track a specific issue from code to commentary in a single jurisdiction and to follow the same question into materials from other jurisdictions.
Many of the profession's most cutting-edge ethics issues are addressed at the Web site of the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, whose mission is to provide "national leadership and vision in developing and interpreting standards and scholarly resources in legal ethics."
Its sections on multidisciplinary practice and multi-jurisdictional practice are among the best resources on these topics anywhere on the Web.
Its ethics section includes the full text of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, annotated with comments and comparisons to the Model Code, as well as summaries of recent opinions of the ABA's Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility.
A service called "ETHICSearch" allows lawyers to e-mail ethics questions and receive back citations to the authorities that should help them find the answer. Other features of the site include links to many states' professionalism codes and a variety of related documents.
One resource not available through the ABA site is the ABA/BNA Lawyers' Manual On Professional Conduct. It is, however, available from BNA, which publishes a Web version identical in content to the print manual.
It requires a paid subscription, but BNA offers a two-week free trial. Subscribers receive reports every two weeks, with e-mail alerts summarizing the highlights and linking to full text articles and documents on the Web. Subscribers also get access to an archive of articles dating to 1998.
A site of consistently high quality since its creation in 1995, Legalethics.com is devoted to helping legal professionals understand the unique ethical issues raised by the Internet. Its most useful service is in tracking and publishing state and local ethics rulings related to the Internet.
It maintains a comprehensive collection of links to ethics-related articles, other ethics sites, state ethics boards and related research sources. It provides basic information on each state's ethics agency and conduct rules and provides links to full-text rules and opinions where available.
The site includes a list of all ethics opinions relating to the Internet, organized by state, with links to the full text when available.
For a folksier view of legal ethics, read McLean, Va., lawyer Stephen W. Comiskey's free, online book, A Good Lawyer.
Subtitled, Secrets Good Lawyers [and Their Best Clients] Already Know, it is full of nuggets of wisdom such as, "Lawyers are the custodians of the ideals of our society," and, "A trial is theater with consequences." Download the book or read it online.
Next, the American Judicature Society is involved in promoting judicial-ethics education as well as a fair and effective system of judicial discipline.
Among the resources available through its Web site are a national directory of judicial conduct organizations, a clearinghouse service for data concerning judicial discipline, descriptions of courses available through its National College on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, and a selection of in-depth articles, such as "An Ethics Guide for Part-Time Lawyer Judges," and "Key Issues in Judicial Ethics."
The Law Office Hornbook is the online version of a quarterly periodical that focuses on malpractice avoidance, firm management and professional liability. The bars of Virginia, Hawaii, New Mexico and Arizona sponsor it as part of the risk management service they provide. Articles expanded versions of those from the hard-copy edition cover a range of ethics and professionalism topics.
A national organization of lawyers concentrating in the fields of professional responsibility and legal ethics, members of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers include professors, bar counsel, legal malpractice litigators, in-house law firm ethics counsel, and the like.
For non-members, the sole reason to visit this site is for its thorough library of links, which includes state ethics codes, ethics opinions, bar associations, and other sites related to ethics or malpractice.
Two Virginia lawyers have separately created useful resources on legal ethics. Thomas E. Spahn, a lawyer in the McLean office of McGuireWoods, has single-handedly summarized and categorized more than 1,500 ethics opinions from Virginia and the ABA and made them available to the public through Legal Ethics Opinions Summaries. Summaries are in a database that can be searched by key words, and also organized under topic headings.
James McCauley, a lawyer in Richmond and ethics counsel for the Virginia State Bar, is also a prolific writer of articles concerning legal ethics, several of which he includes on his personal Web site, Legal Ethics in Virginia.
Articles look at lawyers and the Internet, multidisciplinary practice, unauthorized practice, doctors and lawyers, Chinese walls, and more.
Members of the National Association of Bar Counsel might be considered the law enforcement officers of legal ethics. The highlight of NABC's site is its semi-annual compilation of ethics cases.
For its twice-yearly meetings, the NABC prepares summaries of new court cases and ethics opinions involving attorney discipline.
Summaries for 1996-2001 are available, with each summary's digests organized by topic. The site also includes the complete staff roster of every state ethics agency and a collection of links to notable ethics sites.
Robert J. Ambrogi is author of The Essential Guide to the Best (and Worst) Legal Web Sites, available through LawCatalog.com.