This seems like an easy enough question to answer. After all, an ethics violation is failing to follow the rules of professional conduct. However, like all legal matters, things are rarely that simple.
Licensed attorneys must adhere to the California Rules of Professional Conduct. Of course, these rules are often open to interpretation. You might recall comments on the rules when you took your professional responsibility course in law school. These comments are designed to provide clarity to the standards of ethical behavior. Depending on how long ago you were in law school, things could have changed significantly. The State Bar of California still publishes ethics opinions when potential conflicts arise.
Areas where you need to be mindful
You probably don’t have the time to keep yourself informed of all updates to the Rules of Professional Conduct. However, you can help avoid problem areas by making yourself aware of some of the most common ethics violations, including:
- Competence: You need to be able to provide competent representation for your client. Sometimes, complaints about competence can come from state bar prosecutors who may not have a thorough understanding of private practice. Other times, a failure to adequately prepare can put yourself in hot water. If you’ve neither the time nor knowledge to provide competent representation, you should probably pass on the case.
- Meeting deadlines: The ethics rules refer to this as “diligence.” The wheels of justice may turn slowly, but they would probably grind to a halt if deadlines weren’t imposed. You can help avoid violating this ethical rule by maintaining a manageable caseload.
- Conflicts of interest: It’s rare for a lawyer to provide representation to a client who they know has adverse interests to another one of their clients. It’s much more common for a lawyer to represent a client with adverse interests, but the lawyer is unaware of the conflict. Clients can waive conflicts of interest. However, it’s incumbent on you to properly vet a case for potential conflicts.
An ethical violation is not necessarily the end of the world. There are a lot of grey areas in the Rules of Professional Conduct. A skilled professional can help you explore your options and minimize the potential fallout of an alleged ethical violation.