Code of Professional Responsibility

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The Code of Professional Responsibility governs legal ethical conduct and was created by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1969. The Code comprised three portions: (1) Canons; (2) Ethical Considerations; and (3) Disciplinary Rules.  The first two portions were considered “aspirational” while the third was mandatory. 

The Code provided guidance regarding issues of conflicts of interest, client confidentiality, competent representation, conduct to the courts, prevention of the unauthorized practice of law, and more. It was based on the ABA’s 1908 Canons of Professional Ethics, which were in turn borrowed from the 1887 Canons of the Alabama State Bar.

The Code of Professional Responsibility was later replaced by the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and adopted by the ABA House Delegates in 1983.  The shift from the Code to the Model Rules was in part a response to criticism that it was difficult to understand and structurally flawed and fallout from the Watergate scandal. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct are not inherently binding but come into effect only when states choose to adopt certain rules. For example, New York state was one of the last states to continue to use the 1969 Code, only adopting a modified version of the Model Rules in 2009.

[Last updated in August of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]