A code of professional responsibility is a code of rules and ethics that applies within a given profession. While each profession may have its own code of professional responsibility, the term most often refers to the rules of ethics and regulations published by the American Bar Association for attorneys. A code of professional responsibility or an ethical code can sometimes be optional or suggested within a field, but for attorneys, these professional ethical rules are mandated.
The American Bar Association publishes the Model Rules of Professional Conduct as the official code of professional responsibility for attorneys. Perspective lawyers must demonstrate their familiarity with these rules before they are licensed to practice law. Attorneys demonstrate their knowledge of the rules by taking a professional responsibility examination.
When a lawyer is in law school, the ABA requires that he take an ethics course as part of his education. During this ethics course, he learns the rules from the ABA's published Model Rules of Professional Conduct. These rules govern a number of things, including the way attorneys relate to clients, and the way they behave in a court room, with other attorneys and with the general public.
When attorneys are in law school, or when they graduate, they are required to take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination. This examination tests the attorneys' familiarity with the ABA's published code of conduct, and with the rules taught in the law school ethics course. The test is the same for every state, and the rules of ethics that apply to attorneys are also the same throughout the United States.
These rules and regulations govern nearly every aspect of professional behavior for lawyers. For example, some of the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility include rules about confidentiality and rules about conflicts of interest. The rules are designed to ensure that attorneys will know how to handle any ethical dilemma, and that clients will receive fair and adequate representation.
Famous rules of professional responsibility include rule 1.6, which mandates that attorneys maintain client confidentiality, and rule 1.7, which addresses conflicts of interest. Other rules dictate how an attorney should behave if a client is lying, and how to charge fees appropriately.
If an attorney fails to follow the code of professional responsibility as laid forth in the ABA Model Rules, he can potentially be disbarred. This means he could lose his license to practice law. The penalties are in place because the ABA recognizes that attorneys owe the highest duty to their clients.