What is Attorney Misconduct?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Attorney misconduct refers to actions by a licensed attorney that breach laws or professional conduct codes. What constitutes attorney misconduct may vary depending on applicable standards of professionalism and the circumstances of the action. In addition to criminal or civil charges related to misconduct, an attorney may face severe disciplinary penalties from his or her licensing body, including a suspension of license or even disbarment.

An attorney may violate conduct rules while on the job by committing bribery.
An attorney may violate conduct rules while on the job by committing bribery.

The professional conduct of attorneys is often highly valued because they hold so much responsibility for the future of their clients. A great deal of public and private trust is granted to attorneys, based on the idea that they will act in a legal and responsible manner on their client's behalf. Violating conduct laws poses a threat to the entire profession by damaging the trustworthy reputation of the profession as a whole. Strong disciplinary action meets attorney misconduct specifically to deter ethics violations and prove to the public that conduct matters are treated seriously.

Attorney misconduct refers to an action performed by an attorney that breaches laws or professional conduct codes.
Attorney misconduct refers to an action performed by an attorney that breaches laws or professional conduct codes.

Criminal acts are often a source of misconduct allegations for attorneys. Committing fraud or bribery, illicitly obtaining evidence, and coercing testimony are all common ways that an attorney may violate conduct rules while on the job. In addition, any criminal action, whether related to the profession or not, may be ground for misconduct accusations. Since criminal activity can reflect poorly on a person's fitness to act as a lawyer, even wholly unrelated crimes such as domestic abuse or driving under the influence, can result in disciplinary action.

Violations of client/attorney ethics can also be a source of attorney misconduct issues. Conflict of interest cases result when the attorney has a personal interest related to a case that may trump a professional duty; for instance, conflict of interest usually bars attorneys from representing family members. Violating client confidentiality, such as by telling a reporter about a celebrity client's marriage woes, may also constitute a major violation of professional standards and can even result in legal charges in some cases. Sexual or romantic relationships between lawyers and clients are almost always considered attorney misconduct and can result in serious disciplinary measures.

There are a variety of penalties that may be levied for attorney misconduct, in addition to legal penalties for breaking any laws. These penalties may depend on the circumstances, and in some cases may serve only as a warning, rather than a truly punitive measure. The most minor disciplinary action is usually a private letter of concern or reprimand sent by the licensing or ethics board to the attorney. Other penalties include public censure, license suspension, and permanent disbarment. Disbarring a lawyer can render him or her permanently unable to practice in the jurisdiction, and is an extremely severe and rarely invoked penalty which may effectively end a lawyer's career.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@Terrificli -- you are not giving clients enough credit. They may miss some small violations of the code of ethics, but they know if they have been ripped off. The problem is finding the resources to file a complaint against the misbehaving attorney, so educating the general public about how to do that might be a good idea.

By the way, judges are often the ones that turn lawyers in who have broken the code of ethics. Quite often, they feel an obligation to protect the rights of people who are in their courts and will call an unethical lawyer to the carpet in a heartbeat.


A major problem with legal ethics is that attorneys have a duty to turn other lawyers in when they know that ethical rules have been breached. But a lot of attorneys aren't willing to step up and do that. There is a certain stigma attached with ratting out other attorneys, not to mention the attorney who has been complained about might be out for revenge.

The legal community is a close knit one in a lot of areas. The members of that community rarely want to turn each other in because all of those lawyers have to work with each other and burning bridges can make settling cases a difficult task indeed.

Clients who have been wronged can turn their lawyers in for ethical violations, but how many of those clients are sophisticated enough to know what is proper and what is not?

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