Professional responsibility

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Professional responsibility is the area of legal practice that encompasses the duties of attorneys to act in a professional manner, obey the law, avoid conflicts of interest, and put the interests of clients ahead of their own interests.

Violations in normal[edit]

Common violations include

  • Conflicts of interest. This occurs where the same lawyer or firm is representing both sides in a lawsuit, or previously represented one side. In countries with the adversarial system of justice, a conflict of interest violates the right of each client to the undivided, zealous loyalty of his lawyer. Conflicts may also occur if the lawyer's ability to represent a client is materially limited by the lawyer's loyalty to another client, a personal relationship, or other reasons.
  • Incompetent representation. Attorneys have a duty to provide competent representation, and the failure to observe deadlines or conduct thorough research is considered a breach of ethics.
  • Mishandling of client money. Clients often advance money to lawyers for a variety of reasons. The money must be kept in special client trust accounts until it is actually earned by the lawyer or spent on court fees or other expenses.
  • Fee-splitting arrangements. Attorneys may not split fees with non-attorneys, or with other attorneys who have not worked on the matter for which the client is represented.
  • Disclosure of confidential information. Lawyers are under a strict duty of confidentiality to keep information received in the course of their representations secret. Absent law to the contrary, lawyers may not reveal or use this information to the detriment of their clients.
  • Communication with represented parties. An attorney may not communicate directly with a person who they know to be represented by counsel with respect to a matter for which the attorney is seeking to communicate. For example, in a civil suit, the plaintiff's attorney may not speak to the defendant directly if the attorney knows that the defendant is represented by counsel without their attorney's express consent.
  • Proper solicitation and advertising. Attorneys generally may solicit business by personally offering their services to potential clients who are not already close friends or family members. Advertising by attorneys is also strictly regulated, to prevent puffery and other misleading assertions regarding potential results.

In the United States[edit]

In U.S. law schools[edit]

Following the Watergate scandal, which involved questionable behavior by a number of lawyers, the American Bar Association ("ABA") mandated that all American law schools incorporate a required course on this topic.[1] This is typically offered as an upper-level course, most often taken in the second year. Professional responsibility courses include matters pertaining to basic legal ethics, as well as bar admissions, legal advertising, disbarment proceedings, ineffective assistance of counsel, and judicial misconduct.

Maynard Pirsig, published one of the first course books on legal ethics, Cases and Materials on Legal Ethics, 1949, later Cases and Materials on the Standards of the Legal Profession, 1957, and Cases and Materials on Professional Responsibility, 1965.

Maynard Pirsig also published the definition of legal ethics in Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974.


Every state in the United States tests prospective attorneys on their knowledge of professional responsibility. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia require bar applicants to pass an exam called the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE). The remaining three states test professional responsibility on their local bar examinations. Furthermore, the ABA promulgated the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct.[2][3] in 1983; when Maine adopted the model rules in August 2009, California became the only remaining U.S. jurisdiction not to have adopted the model rules in whole or in part. Most states have only minor variations from the model rules, if any. Attorneys who violate professional responsibility rules may be subject to sanctions ranging from reprimands to temporary suspension to permanent disbarment.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ American Bar Association (2015). "Standard 303, Curriculum". ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools 2015-2016 (PDF). Chicago: American Bar Association. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-63425-352-9. Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  2. ^ Theodore Schneyer, "Professionalism as Politics: The Making of a Modern Legal Ethics Code," in Lawyers' Ideals/Lawyers' Practices: Transformations in the American Legal Profession, eds. Robert L. Nelson, David M. Trubek, & Rayman L. Solomon, 95–143 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 104.
  3. ^ ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct (PDF).