Legal Ethics Corner

Ethics Corner 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.  

I Hereby Move We Eliminate the Rules of Professional Conduct:  Okay, Okay, I Do Not Really Mean It…

…but the question was proposed in an ABA article a few years ago querying whether regulating attorney conduct leads to more unethical behavior instead of less.  One professor advanced the idea that scout’s honor “is more effective than oversight checks and warnings.”  (See article here.) 

I am ashamed to admit, perhaps like most practitioners, that I do not believe scout’s honor would cut it—especially in light of the collection of bad apples one reads about in the Attorney Discipline sections of California Lawyer and the California Bar eJournal.  The idea is attractive, however.  The problem, as addressed somewhat in the above ABA article, is that attorneys do not always simply ask themselves in the abstract, ‘is this right?’  Instead, one subconsciously asks the question, ‘is this right in light of my organization’s practices?’  “[O]rganizational practices can counter individual decision-making habits,” according to John M. Darley, a psychology professor at Princeton University.  Thus, an attorney who might not act unethically if practicing law in one environment might do so if practicing in another.  Presumably, the chance of this might increase if an inappropriate example is being set from the top down within the particular organization. 

The point of this week’s Ethics Corner is not particularly special.  I simply feel it is worth noting that “[a]n attorney has a constant and perpetual rendezvous with ethics” (McClure v. Donovan (1947) 82 Cal.App.2d 664, 666), and that this rendezvous is fundamentally the same whether one is a sole-practitioner or a member in an international firm.  “Am I doing the right thing” should not depend on what someone is doing in the office next door or in the office down the hall.

--Luis E. Ventura

**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.**