What are Legal Ethics?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Legal ethics are an area of ethics which involve the legal profession and the practice of law. Adherence to basic legal ethics is generally required for people who wish to practice law, with most nations having associations of legal professionals which have the ability to bring people up on charges and suspend their licenses if they are suspected of ethics violations. For people seeking legal assistance who are curious, it is usually possible to look a lawyer up with a bar association to determine whether or not the lawyer is a member in good standing and to see a history of any complaints or investigations.

Lawyers take an oath agreeing to abide by ethical requirements.
Lawyers take an oath agreeing to abide by ethical requirements.

The practice of law is complex, and it can be fraught with ethical issues. Legal ethics covers many of the basic ethical issues which come up in the law, many of which are actually encoded right into the laws which pertain to legal practice. The goal of creating ethical standards is to retain the reputation of the legal profession as a whole, giving consumers greater confidence when it comes to dealing with lawyers.

Keeping certain information confidential is part of legal ethics.
Keeping certain information confidential is part of legal ethics.

Some topics covered in legal ethics include attorney-client privilege, legal billing, disclosures which lawyers are obligated to make, professional and personal relationships with other members of the legal profession, relationships with jurors, situations in which lawyers and judges must be recused from a case, ethical conflicts which can arise in the law, and situations in which people can offer legal advice. In many nations, legal ethics also includes mandates to perform volunteer service, or a strong stress on performing pro bono work.

Advertising activities are also covered under legal ethics, as are the operations of legal firms, partnerships of attorneys, and so forth. When lawyers apply to be allowed to practice law, they are often required to swear or affirm an oath which indicates their intention to abide by ethical requirements, and they subject themselves to the authority of a government organization which has the power to enact fines, revoke licenses, and engage in other penal activities when ethical violations occur.

The field of legal ethics is constantly evolving as new legal issues arise. Many law schools have ethics committees and departments which explore shifts in legal ethics, as do professional associations of lawyers. These organizations may periodically recommend revisions or alterations to ethical guidelines in the interests of keeping members of the legal profession as current with ethical issues as possible.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Why can't someone have a criminal record and practice law?


Can a lawyer continue to practice law with a criminal conviction?


SauteePan- Modern legal ethics or bioethics really involves cases of euthanasia and the right to die.

One of the most famous cases involved that of Terry Schiavo. Terry Schiavo was in a vegetative state for several years and her husband wanted to remove the feeding tube and let her die naturally because the doctors said that she would never recover.

Her parents on the other hand wanted to continue to

have hope that one day she would awake and be fully functioning again.

They said that her eyes were open and they felt that she should be given a chance. Her husband won the battle and Terry Schiavo was taken off life support.

She subsequently died but many raised moral issues about prolonging life and ending it. In order to avoid this situation is it recommended that everyone have a power of attorney along with a living will in place.


Sunshine31-Some legal ethics issues may arise when a lawyer has to defend someone that they may feel committed a heinous crime.

In most cases the lawyer may excuse himself and not proceed in defending the alleged criminal.

But if one is a criminal lawyer they have taken an oath to defend their client to the best of their ability.

This is something that criminal lawyers probably think about all of the time which is why most say that they do not ask their client if they are guilty or innocent of the alleged crime.

The instead act as though the client is innocent. This can pose a moral dilemma especially if you as the attorney knows the client is guilty. In addition, if you think that your client is guilty, you will begin to form a bias toward your client so this is why lawyers do not ask their client or prefer that their client not confess to the crime to them.


Cupcake15-I know like with many professionals legal ethics issues occur when the attorney develops a relationship with a client.

This type of relationship goes against the American Bar Association rules because an attorney has to have a clear mind in order to properly defend a client and if those lines are blurred with a relationship or if the relationship goes sour then the attorney is not going to defend the client with the same zeal as before.

When you become an attorney you really promise to defend your client to the best of your ability.


Legal malpractice occurs when legal ethics rules were not followed. The American Bar Association has a set of legal tenets that all that practice law must practice.

Defending your client to the very best of your ability is part of the legal ethics rules. In addition, maintaining a level of confidentiality with your client and not disclosing the information that your client has given you is part of the basics in legal ethics.

Failure to follow any of these two tenets can get you disbarred which essentially means that you will lose your license and be unable to practice law.

Also, if an attorney breaks the law and is convicted of a crime, they will also be disbarred because you can not have a criminal record when you practice law.

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