Ethics in Brief

Ethics in Brief is designed to present ethical issues that practitioners might well face on a daily basis. It is a service of the Legal Ethics Committee of the San Diego County Bar Association for SDCBA members.

Duty to Our Colleagues

How does a young lawyer tiptoe through an ethical minefield with pressure mounting and little guidance but what she might glean from her clerk peers?

That’s the dilemma David Lat poses in his debut novel, Supreme Ambition. Audrey Coyne, a newly minted Yale graduate from an other-side-of-the-tracks family lands a coveted Ninth Circuit clerkship. Then an ethical bombshell explodes. At stake? Not only her job at the court but a possible Supreme Court clerkship—and all the post-clerkship “goodies” that flow from it: huge signing bonus from a prestigious law firm; early tenure at a first rate law school; invitation to a high ranking government position.

Lat, a former Ninth Circuit clerk himself, and founder and managing editor of Above the Law, tells a compelling, insider tale, with just enough court gossip and in-chambers scoops to create an intimate portrait of a court most of us never see. Judges Posner and Kozinski—neither thought to be pushovers—gave Supreme Ambition positive reviews.

We focus on Supreme Ambition, however, not as a compelling legal novel, but for some of the fundamental ethical issues it raises. Not every young lawyer may face decisions as stark as those Coyne confronts—no spoiler alert necessary; read the book. But unquestionably each will have to address uncomfortable ethical choices, frequently early in her or his career while struggling to build a practice, to develop a reputation, to earn a living and pay off those loans.

So, what’s a young lawyer to do? What if you’re on your own, or in a small firm without the luxury of a “professional responsibility” partner or general counsel? What if you can’t find some senior lawyer willing to take the time to puzzle through sometimes-tough ethics questions? Advice from peers, after all, can be like the blind leading the helpless.

The State Bar and San Diego County Ethics Committee’s “hotlines” can be helpful, if we think to use them. A few may have found a trusted mentor, or have stayed in touch with a former professor. All to the good.

But Supreme Ambition forces us to confront whether more mature lawyers in our community, especially those with developed ethics experience and skill, are meeting our responsibility to younger colleagues? To share that experience; make that skill available to them?

The Ethics Committee’s mission includes, among other goals, to educate: writing; speaking; drafting opinions; conducting programs and seminars; serving as a liaison with the State Bar (COPRAC). Committee members have the demonstrated experience and skill, and the desire to contribute. But they can only scratch an itch when they know where it is. Key question. How can the Ethics Committee better serve your needs; make itself available to you? We want your thoughts. Send them to us at

– Edward J. McIntyre

**No portion of this summary is intended to constitute legal advice. Be sure to perform independent research and analysis. Any views expressed are those of the author only and not of the SDCBA or its Legal Ethics Committee.**