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Legal Ethics Research: Introduction

This guide focuses on the codes of professional ethics and ethics opinions available from the American Bar Association, and various state bar associations.

Introduction

Researching legal ethics issues is a complex process and requires use of materials beyond judical decisions and statutes. Attorney and judicial conduct is governed by rules of legal ethics and professional responsibility adopted by each state. These rules are based on model rules adopted by the American Bar Association (ABA), most recently the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the Code of Judicial Conduct. The Model Rules and Model Code are not binding on anyone, but serve as a model for adoption by states.

Individual states more or less adopt the ABA Model Rules and Model Code, except California, which is the only state that has never adopted either model, and has its own rules of professional responsibility. Each state bar association has a mechanism for enforcing the rules through disciplinary proceedings, and through the issuance of opinion letters on ethical issues submitted to it.

Codes or rules of professional conduct for lawyers and judges function much like statutes. However, most are not adopted by the legislature, but instead by state bar associations or the highest court of the jurisdiction. Since these model codes have effect in a state only as they are adopted by that state, begin your research by finding your state's version of rules of professional conduct. You may need to consult bar association ethics opinions, the Model Rules, and the version of the rules of professional conduct for your particular state. Case law research can be complicated because ethics issues can arise from attorney discipline proceedings, and such diverse substantive areas as legal malpractice and criminal appeals.

This guide focuses on materials other than case law, although a few tips on finding judicial decisions are included. 

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