The Law School Magazine  ·  Winter 2009 :

5-Minute Classroom: Legal Ethics Rules

By - Winter 2009
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Is an attorney obliged to report another attorney’s repeated lateness in filing final judgments in numerous divorce cases? May an attorney who sits on the Board of Directors of a corporation also represent a client in a lawsuit against that same corporation? May an attorney who was voted “Best” attorney in a poll by the local newspaper highlight that award in an advertisement? Although these questions appear quite distinct, they all involve issues of legal ethics.

In practice, questions of legal ethics arise frequently. In addition to misconduct, conflict of interest, and advertising, other common legal ethics issues include attorney-client confidentiality, malpractice, and fee agreements. Each state has issued ethics rules and opinions to regulate attorney conduct in these types of situations. Fortunately much of the research in legal ethics can be freely done online, however many useful sources may only be available through print or fee-based sources.


Most states base their ethical rules on the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, adopted in 1983. Preceding the current model rules were the Model Code of Professional Responsibility (1969) and the Canons of Legal Ethics (1908). The current Model Rules of Professional Conduct and its predecessors are freely available online through the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, For those states which have adopted the ABA model rules, this site also includes links each states’ ethics rules.

Another good place to find state ethical rules is Cornell’s American Legal Ethics Library,  In addition to links to state ethics rules, the American Legal Ethics Library also contains a “Narrative” or a summary of the professional responsibility laws of select states, such as California, New York, Illinois, and Ohio. The Library also provides a breakdown by subject area of jurisdictions following the current Model Rules, the earlier Model Code, or other system.

Court and Advisory Opinions

In addition to ethics rules, court opinions may interpret and apply a rule to a specific situation. One quick way to find court opinions on an ethics rule is to Keycite or Shepardize that rule. Additionally, Lexis and Westlaw both offer tailored databases of ethics cases for each state.

After examining court opinions, advisory opinions, though not necessarily binding, may help in researching a rule. Both the ABA and individual states issue advisory opinions on questions of legal ethics. Current ABA opinions are summarized at the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility,; Lexis and Westlaw provide the full text of these opinions. Many state ethics opinions are freely available online. Both the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility and the American Legal Ethics Library,, provide links to state advisory opinions where available.

Other Sources

The standard reference covering legal ethics is the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct. This resource is the most comprehensive collection of material on professional responsibility.  It contains the ABA model rules, summaries of state variations on the model rules, ABA ethics opinions and summaries of state ethics opinions. Many law libraries have this resource in print; it is also available on Lexis, Westlaw, and

For a large collection of state ethics opinions, consult the National Reporter on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility. In addition to ethics opinions, the reporter also contains ethics rules for each state. This resource may be found in many law libraries and is also available on Lexis.

The American Law Institute (ALI) has also covered professional responsibility in Restatement of the Law Third: The Law Governing Lawyers. As a restatement, this resource distills the common law principles on legal ethics. Although not freely available online, it is available on Lexis, Westlaw, and in print.

If firms often encounter questions of legal ethics in your practice, it might be worth purchasing a treatise on professional responsibility. Two current standard treatises are The Law of Lawyering by Geoffrey Hazard, available through Aspen, and Legal Ethics: The Lawyers Deskbook on Professional Responsibility available through West, The ABA also publishes Annotated Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which in addition to the rules, contains citations to cases and other helpful sources.

Katherine Hall joined the Moritz Law Library in 2001 and is currently assistant director for public services. In addition to coordinating reference services for the faculty, students, and members of the public, she also participates in collection development. She teaches a section of the first-year Introduction to Legal Research course and the upper level Advanced Electronic Legal Research course.