A practical guide to California legal ethics rules

California legal ethics rules

Like most states, California has a complex set of rules and regulations concerning legal ethics. So complex, in fact, that attorney practice rules can be found in no fewer than 19 of California’s Code books, including the Business & Professions Code, the Civil Code, the Insurance Code, and, perhaps surprisingly, the Water Code.

Yet even if you read through all of those code sections, you still would not have reviewed California’s main body of ethics rules for lawyers – the Rules of Professional Conduct.

The regulatory landscape for California lawyers is undoubtedly vast, but failure to comply can have serious consequences. Thus, we’ve put together this practical guide to help you find the answers you need when you come across an ethical question.

Rules of Professional Conduct

The California Rules of Professional Conduct (“CRPC”) are what most legal professionals think of when they first consider their ethical obligations.

Today, California’s rules have a large degree of overlap with the ABA Model Rules, though because California was one of the last states to adopt the Model Rules, the CRPC also contains rules unique to the State.

In short, these are the ethical rules that govern everyday practice for lawyers. They cover important duties like diligence, communication, and confidentiality as well as obligations such as candor toward tribunals and fairness toward opposing lawyers/parties.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re wondering, “is it okay for me to do this?” the CRPC is the first place to look for your answer.

State Bar Act

The California State Bar Act is found within the Business & Professions Code at sections 6000 through 6243.

The State Bar Act does a lot of essential things, including establishing and maintaining the State Bar itself. That said, it also contains important ethical mandates on topics like the unlawful practice of law, fee agreements, and advertising rules for lawyers.

As an important aside, the State Bar Act covers some of the same topics as the CRPC, including advertising. That’s why it is absolutely critical for California legal professionals to be familiar with all of the statutory schemes regulating their practice and to get in the habit of consulting each set of rules before acting.

Additional Statutes

As noted in the introduction, laws regulating lawyer conduct can be found in 19 separate codes – and that’s not including the State Bar Act provisions of the Business & Professions Code.

These other statutes tend to be highly specific, such as Civil Code Section 55.55, which regulates attorney fees and costs in construction-related accessibility claims.

While listing these various statutes is beyond the scope of this article, legal professionals would be wise to review and keep a copy of the State Bar’s 294-page statutory anthology titled “Selected Statutes on Discipline and Duties of Licensees.

California Rules of Court

In case you now feel like you’ve got a handle on all of the various ethics rules and regulations that apply to California attorneys, now I’d like to invite you to review the series-9 rules of the California Rules of Court.

Among other things, these rules do things like prescribe the oath an attorney must take in order to be admitted to the California Bar (and note, the language prescribed here is “in addition to” the oath language already provided in Business & Professions Code section 6067).

The Rules of Court also set forth the procedures for attorney disciplinary hearings (Rules 9.10 – 9.23), define Certified Legal Specialists (Rule 9.35), and regulate pro hac vice appearances (Rule 9.40).

Formal Ethics Opinions

Any good lawyer knows that while rules are important, the manner in which those rules are interpreted is critical. Interpretation of the State’s ethical rules can be found in the State Bar Ethics Opinions.

These are formal opinions issued by the State Bar’s Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct. They seek to answer some of the most pressing ethical issues of the day.

Note that these opinions are not binding on any court. Nonetheless, they are often cited in California Appellate Court and California Supreme Court decisions and carry great weight with judges.

In case this seems like a pretty straightforward way to research ethical issues, you’d best hold on to your hat. The bar associations of some California counties (specifically, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego) publish their own ethics opinions which can be useful when trying to navigate ethical dilemmas arising in any part of the state.

Helpful resources

After reading this article, ethical research in California may seem like a daunting task.

It is, but fortunately, the California State Bar seems to recognize as much. The bar publishes some incredibly useful resources that consolidate many of the above sources into one place. Here are our favorites:

  • Publication 250. Among other things, Publication 250 includes the California Rules of Court, the State Bar Act, and other relevant statutes. Note that this resource is intended to be used in addition to the CRPC.
  • California Compendium on Professional Responsibility. This is a three-volume reference manual dealing solely with issues of ethics in California. It contains:
    • All of the state and county ethics opinions referenced above;
    • The Publication 250 Book;
    • The California Code of Judicial Conduct; and
    • A subject matter research index. This is particularly useful when the rules on a given topic (e.g., advertising) are found across multiple sources.

Fortunately, this 514-page research compendium is also available online and serves as a great starting place for ethical research.

The ethical rules for lawyers in California are complex, scattered across multiple publications, and constantly evolving. Nonetheless, there’s almost nothing more important that you can do for your practice than to know and understand the rules and the various places they’re found.

To make things easier for you the next time an ethical issue arises in your firm, feel free to bookmark the above links. You’ll be glad you did.

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