Legal ethics broadly refer to the unique responsibilities of lawyers and the legal system given the important role and influence they have in society. Because of their role and their close involvement in the administration of law, lawyers are subject to special standards, regulation, and liability. Most commonly, legal ethics refers to these rules of professional responsibility: the actual responsibilities lawyers must follow by law such as client confidentiality. However, legal ethics can also refer to the discussion on broader moral principles that societies place on lawyers that may not be legally required.
The law governing the professional responsibility of lawyers, since they are admitted to practice by states, is largely governed by the law of each state. However, all states follow more or less the Model Rules of Professional Conduct created by the ABA, and federal courts and agencies set their own practice rules and apply specific rules like those in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. While the laws of each state actually govern, the Model Rules and their comments greatly influence the decisions of courts applying professional responsibility laws. The Model Rules set mandatory and discretionary rules and principles on a wide variety of lawyer practice including: client confidentiality, conflicts of interest, fiduciary responsibilities, commingling, and general malpractice. Should a lawyer breach these rules, state courts and enforcement agencies have wide discretion to punish the lawyer and breaching some of the rules like conflicts of interest can impact the outcome of the lawyer’s matters.
Broader Legal Ethics
Legal ethics can refer to a higher set of norms that lawyers should follow that may not be required by set legal rules. Many of the model rules try to include some of these broader principles. However, the model legal rules tend to be considered a floor of expected requirements of lawyers. Legal ethics can refer to the broader principles lawyers should strive for to ensure the protection and adequate representation of clients. While codes try their best to encourage ethical conduct of lawyers, the legal profession for centuries has struggled with balancing client protections with the often conflicting interests of lawyers and other clients. Thus, legal ethics often involves discussion of the ideals of lawyer conduct, irrespective of the mandates of legal rules.
For more information on the legal ethics rules and debates, see the Model Rules for Professional Conduct, this ABA Guide to State Ethics Resources, this Duke Law Guide to Legal Ethics Requirements, and this Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, & Public Policy Article on the differences between and limitations of legal codes and ethical principles.
[Last updated in March of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]