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Attorney ethics are the moral rules that attorneys use to make decisions. They are distinct from personal ethics and are a specialized form of business ethics. In the US, the ethical rules that attorneys must follow are outlined in the Code of Professional Responsibility. Other countries have their own specific codes; the International Bar Association also has an International Code of Ethics.
Ethics, in general, refers to a set of principles that dictate the definition of proper moral behavior or a theory of moral values. Attorney ethics are distinct from everyday ethics that people may apply in their own lives. Attorneys have a special function in society, which may dictate that they adhere to different ethical principals. Although the ethical principals required of attorneys may differ from what an individual attorney believes to be morally proper, the attorney still must follow that ethical rule because of the special role that he or she plays in society.
Attorneys act as officers of the court and are held to a high standard of behavior. In every law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA), for example, attorneys are required to take a legal ethics course to learn the Code of Professional Responsibility. After taking the course, every prospective lawyer must pass an exam called the Multi-State Professional Responsibility exam, which tests the attorney's knowledge of this code of ethics.
Once an attorney graduates from law school in the US, he is required to undergo a background check or a "moral character" evaluation before he is able to take the bar in his state. This background check reviews an attorney's past history in order to determine if there is any reason to believe an attorney will not behave ethically. For example, a history of felony convictions could disqualify a person from becoming an attorney, because such a history would cast doubt on the attorney's moral character.
Upon passing the bar, the attorney's ethics must always be governed by the rules he learned in law school that are contained in the Code of Professional Responsibility. This code is designed to ensure that the attorney puts the needs of his client first. It is also designed to ensure that no attorneys abuse their power as officers of the court.
The Code of Professional Responsibility may set forth ethical rules that differ from what a standard person would believe is ethical. For example, if a client confesses his guilt in a murder to his attorney, attorney ethics stipulate that the attorney cannot legally disclose that information. The ethical rule is in place to ensure that the justice system runs smoothly, effectively, and efficiently, and that every individual has a fair trial.
@Vincenzo -- in a lot of ways, whether the emphasis on ethics has altered the public's perception of attorneys is a minor issue. The important question is whether that emphasis has resulted in clients being represented better.
And, yes, there were some abuses that needed to be curbed. We're talking about allegations of attorneys showing preference to higher paying clients at the expense of those that weren't considered as valuable. We're talking about allegations of outright theft of cash from personal injury cases and through strange billing practices.
If the emphasis on ethics helped curb those alleged abuses, they were well worth putting in place. Perception, then, is one thing but the fair treatment of clients is another. The two are related, but the perception is less important than making sure attorneys do right by their clients.
Starting around the late 1980s, a lot of states really started to ramp up the emphasis on ethical values. For example, some states started to require attorneys to take at least one course on ethics yearly as part of their normal continuing legal education courses. Still others revised the ethical codes to which attorneys must adhere.
A lot of that was initiated by state and local bar associations as a way to combat the shady reputation that has, in many ways, been attached to lawyers over the years. How effective have those reforms been when it comes to the public's perception of lawyers? The jury is still out on that.
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