The Virtues and Limits of Codes in Legal Ethics

The Virtues and Limits of Codes in Legal Ethics
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License

The Virtues and Limits of Codes in Legal Ethics

Vincent R. Johnson

14 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol’y 25 (2000).

    In the absence of codified standards of ethics, the ethical quality of law practice would degenerate into inconsistency and unpredictability. The presence of an ethics code can unduly burden and limit the practice of law.  However, ethics codes should not be thought of as tools to ensure the law is practiced humanely.  Instead, they should be viewed as attempts to ameliorate the impediments to a humane practice and to call lawyers to that goal.

Tom Schaffer, a scholar and professor of Ethics at Notre Dame, lamented the fact that the codification of standards of attorney conduct could induce lawyers to abdicate moral responsibility.  Codified rules of attorney ethics, however, are not entirely devoid of merit. Modern codes of ethics protect clients, ensuring a minimum level of performance in handling client affairs.  They also ensure equality with respect to the treatment afforded each client, promote ethical discourse, and serve as symbolic declarations of principles.

    Though there exists the potential to affect a lot of good by ways of codified ethics rule, there are limitations, as simple rules are often insufficient to deal with complex situations and complex rules are hard to communicate, remember, or enforce. While ethic codes hold great potential for achieving important goals within the legal profession, they also suffer significant limitations, requiring the identification of a method to use codes of ethics in a way that maximized the former and minimizes the lesser.

Keywords: Ethics, Tom Shaffer, Code of Professional Responsibility, Model Rule, Model Code, Rambo litigation, 8.04(c), Conflict-of-interest, Geary Reamey, Ethical Considerations, “ECs”, Disciplinary Rules, “DRs”, American Law Institute.

  • Recommend Us