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When are you obligated to report ethical violations?

Like most legal professionals in California, you likely go to great lengths to ensure that your business-related conduct does not warrant scrutiny from state bar officials. The perception is that focusing on your own actions essentially guarantees that you avoid the potential for any professional penalties. 

Yet is that true? What about cases where you face accusations of knowing that another professional’s conduct was in violation of the industry’s established ethics and standards? Could knowing this (without reporting it to the proper industry authorities) cause you trouble? 

Defining your duty to report violations

Per the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, you must report any conduct on the part of another lawyer should their actions constitute any of the following: 

  • A direct violation of the industry’s professional standards 
  • Conduct implying a substantial question to the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to practice their profession 
  • Any actions that detract from the general public’s view of the integrity of the profession 

The same responsibility applies to cases where you may know of unethical conduct on the part of a judge or court official. 

Reviewing exceptions to your duty to report

The aforementioned duty implies the assumption that you knew of an ethical violation (or that the action you knew of did indeed constitute an infraction). If you can show that you were not aware, then the standard may not apply. 

Even in those cases where you were aware of another unethical conduct, you are not mandated to report it if your professional relationship with the party who committed the violation falls under the protection of attorney-client privilege. You are also not expected to make a report if you learn of the violation while participating in a lawyer’s assistance program. 

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