Legal ethics? Are they serious
I know, at least in some peoples’ minds, juxtaposition of the words “legal” and “ethics” rings like an oxymoron. Yet attorneys are among the most highly regulated of the professions, answering to a strict code of professionally permissible and impermissible conduct.In this state, attorneys are governed by the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct, which rules were adopted by the Colorado Supreme Court in 1992. The Rules became effective in 1993 have been tweaked over the years, and are about to be tweaked yet again to account for changing times. The Rules are grounded upon recognition of the fact that the continued existence of a free and democratic society depends upon the concept that justice must strive to be both fair and even-handed. Accordingly, lawyers, as guardians of the law, play an essential role in the preservation of a free society. As such, lawyers must be held to the highest standards of ethical conduct. It is recognized, too, that lawyers may be uniquely positioned to abuse the very process they are sworn to defend and uphold.A lawyer is a representative of his or her clients but is also an officer of the court. Thus, his or her responsibilities are both to the zealous representation of the client’s interest, and, at the same moment, to the fair and impartial administration of justice. In all dealings the lawyer must be honest, competent, prompt and diligent. He or she must always place the interests of the client above his or her own and must never abuse the process he or she is entrusted to support and protect. His or her open and frank communication with his or her clients is essential; the client should at all times be kept fully informed of the matters with which the attorney has been entrusted.Among the lawyer’s many obligations is to remain “current” with the law as it develops and, to that end, to continually update his or her legal knowledge. It is mandated in this state that a lawyer must advance his or her education on a regular basis and, to that end, continuing legal education is both monitored and required. Among the continuing education requirements is a prescribed dose of ethics courses on a regular and on-going basis.In addition to the Rules of Professional Conduct, the lawyer’s professional responsibilities are governed by various substantive and procedural laws, some of which pertain to such things as licensing and admission of attorneys to practice before the Colorado courts.The Rules of Professional Conduct speak to such issues as the lawyer’s competence, communication with the client and with others, the fees an attorney may and may not charge, confidentiality and conflicts of interest. The Rules govern as well such issues as declining and terminating the lawyer’s representation, candor towards the court, fairness to opposing parties and opposing counsel, and truthfulness in statements to others. Covered, too, are such matters as advertising by a lawyer and what may constitute professional misconduct. If a lawyer abridges the Rules, he or she may be called to task, ultimately before the Supreme Court of the State of Colorado.An adjunct to the Rules of Professional Conduct is the State Bar Association’s Legal Ethics Committee. The committee is limited to 80 attorneys statewide, a significant proportion of whom are judges of various jurisdictions, legal scholars, law professors and practitioners whose practice is limited to issues of legal malpractice and attorney misconduct. The ethics committee serves as a steering committee, debating issues of legal ethics, making recommendations, and issuing formal opinions to the Bar at large, and to the courts, as to what constitutes permissible conduct in which an attorney may engage.As in any profession, or for that matter, as in any collection of human beings, there are, unfortunately some “bad apples” who, equally unfortunately stand out, owing either to bombast or, at times, sheer incompetence. In the main, however, most attorneys are diligent and, if not always successful in rising to the heights in every situation, at least earnest and conscious of their professional obligations. That is not to say that attorneys, like any other group, don’t have personal frailties or moral failings. To the contrary. However, owing to the Rules of Professional Conduct and the seriousness with which abridgement of the Rules is regarded by the courts, it is the rare attorney who steps over the line, acting in a manner which may be considered professionally irresponsible or inappropriate. Further comfort to the consuming public of legal services in this state may be had in the fact that the Colorado system is particularly fastidious. Irresponsible or downright dishonest lawyers simply are not tolerated. Where and when appropriate, the Colorado attorney disciplinary system metes out harsh and consequential punishment. It is the rare attorney, who, if failing his or her professional obligations, escapes the disciplinary system’s swift and certain condemnation.Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of theColorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. Robbins lectures for Continuing Legal Education for attorneys in the areas of real estate, business law and legal ethics. He can be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Mr. Robbins can be reached at 926-4461 or at email@example.com.