Searching For Legal Ethics Resources On The Internet
by Robert Ambrogi
LAWYERS GET A BUM RAP. Seen by many as ruthless and greedy, they practice perhaps the most ethical of professions. Bound by strict codes of conduct, almost everything they 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, better understand these rules. 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.
The best of these is the American LegalEthics Library, from Cornell University's Legal Information Institute. This digital library contains the full text of the professional-conduct codes or rules for most U.S. states, as well as the ABA's model code.
In addition, major law firms have contributed narratives on professional-conduct law in their respective states. Materials are organized by both state and topic, and all are fully searchable. As of March, the narratives covered Arkansas, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, with other states to be added.
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 also maintains a comprehensive collection of links to ethics-related articles, other ethics sites, state ethics boards and related research sources.
Legalethics.com is also home to the WebEthics Forum, a threaded, hypertext discussion focusing on the ethical issues associated with Internet use by legal professionals. Unfortunately, although commendable in concept, the forum has seen little activity, with no new messages posted since August 1999.
ABA Site Disappoints
A disappointing counterpoint to these sites is the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility.
Although it contains ample information about the center's work, it is surprisingly sparse in practical content. One would expect at least an online version of the Model Rules, but instead the site only tells how to purchase them in hard copy. Ditto for ethics opinions; the site provides summaries of recent ABA ethics opinions, but full opinions are available only by purchase.
A service called "ETHICSearch" allows lawyers to e-mail the center concerning ethics issues and receive back citations to the authorities that should help them understand and resolve the problem.
In fairness, the part of the site devoted to the Commission on Multidisciplinary Practice is top-notch, with a complete library of reports, transcripts and other documents tracing the history and current status of this debate.
The ABA's Web site does not include the highly regarded ABA/BNA Lawyers' Manual On Professional Conduct, but BNA provides Web access to current reports from the manual. Updated every other week, the Web version requires a subscription. You can sign up online for a free trial and review a sample issue.
Two organizations of lawyers who toil in the fields of ethics have sites worth a visit. Members of the National Association of Bar Counsel, www.nobc.org, might be called the law-enforcement officers of legal ethics. For its twice-yearly meetings, the NABC prepares summaries of new court cases and ethics opinions involving attorney discipline. Since 1996, it has published these on the Web, with each summary's digests organized by topic. The site also includes the staff roster of every state ethics agency and a collection of links to notable ethics sites.
The Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, is a national organization of lawyers concentrating in the fields of professional responsibility and legal ethics. For non-members, the sole reason to visit this site is for its thorough and up-to-date library of links, which includes state ethics codes, ethics opinions, bar associations, and other sites related to ethics or malpractice.
Focus On States
A handful of sites provide more provincial perspectives, focusing on the ethics rules of particular states. A standout among these is the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism.
Although of greatest use to lawyers in Texas, it provides materials of broader interest, including two online courses on ethics and law practice.
The site has the complete text of the Texas disciplinary rules, together with tables comparing and cross-referencing them to the current and former ABA Model Rules. It has the full text of Texas Supreme Court Professional Ethics Committee opinions and a summary of court opinions related to the topic.
Other state-focused sites include:
James McCauley's Home Page. Ethics counsel for the Virginia State Bar, McCauley is a prolific writer of articles concerning legal ethics. Among those offered here, the most ambitious surveys the law of professional responsibility in Virginia. McCauley provides the complete text of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, which took effect Jan. 1, 2000, along with charts and tables analyzing changes from Virginia's former code. He also provides full-text opinions of the Virginia Committee on Lawyer Advertising and Solicitation.
Legal Ethical Opinions Database. This site contains summaries of Virginia and ABA ethics opinions written by Richmond lawyer Thomas E. Spahn. It is well organized, allowing users to browse a table of contents or an alphabetical index, or to obtain the complete list of summaries arranged in chronological order. However, it appears not to be current, containing ABA opinions only through 1989 and Virginia opinions only through June 1999.
Legal Ethics and the Practice of Law. Charles F. Luce Jr., a partner in the Colorado firm Moye, Giles, O'Keefe, Vermeire & Gorrell, and a lecturer in legal ethics at the University of Denver, offers a library of his articles on a range of ethics topics.
While most focus on Colorado, many of the discussions are of broader interest. The most recent are from 1998, which makes this library slightly behind the times.
NetEthics. The Computer Law Section of the State Bar of Georgia was one of the earliest bar entities to begin exploring the ethical implications of attorneys using the Internet. Its NetEthics Committee maintains this online library of articles on Internet advertising, confidentiality and privilege.
The site appears to be out of date, with no new articles added for several years.
Finally, if you have found yourself thinking about moving to warmer climes, but been stymied by that nasty issue of bar admission, here is help. CrossingtheBar.com provides a state-by-state guide to reciprocity rules.
So far, the site covers slightly more than half the states, but new information is being added regularly and will eventually cover all U.S. states, territories and possessions.
Robert J. Ambrogi is director of the American Lawyer Media News Service.