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Column 45, November 1998
Copyright 1998 Robert J. Ambrogi
In Search Of Ethics On The Internet
By Robert J. Ambrogi
Lawyers get a bum rap.
Seen by many as ruthless and greedy, they practice perhaps the most ethical of professions.
Bound by strict codes of conduct, almost everything they do -- from counseling clients to marketing their firms -- must conform to prescribed standards.
The Internet is critical to helping not just lawyers, but also the broader public, understand these rules more thoroughly.
Here is a look at some of the sites that do just that.
The American Legal Ethics Library, http://www.law.cornell.edu/ethics, from Cornell's Legal Information Institute, contains the full text of the professional-conduct codes or rules for most U.S. states, as well as the ABA's model code. Some are published by the LII, others are included through links to state bar or court sites. In addition, several law firms have contributed narratives on professional-conduct law in their respective states. So far, the narratives cover California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, with other states to be added.
Law Journal EXTRA! Professional Responsibility, http://www.ljextra.com/practice/professionalresponsibility/index.html, hosts a wide assortment of articles, news stories and columns relating to professional responsibility, many of which originally appeared in the National Law Journal. There is also a library of law firm memoranda on the topic. The site includes a good collection of links to other legal-ethics sites.
Legalethics.com, http://www.legalethics.com, is devoted to helping legal professionals understand the unique ethical issues raised by the Internet. Its most useful service is in tracking and publishing state and local ethics rulings related to the Internet. It maintains a comprehensive collection of links to ethics-related articles, other ethics sites, state ethics boards and related research sources. It provides basic information on each state's ethics agency and conduct rules and provides links to full-text rules and opinions where available. The site hosts the WebEthics Forum, a threaded, hypertext discussion focusing on the ethical issues associated with Internet use by legal professionals.
Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism, http://www.txethics.org, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting lawyer ethics and professionalism, maintains a diverse and useful online library. Although of greatest use to lawyers in Texas, it includes materials of broader interest, such as its two online courses on ethics and law practice. The site has the complete text of the Texas disciplinary rules and the ABA Model Rules, together with comparison tables. It also has the full text of state ethics opinions and a summary of court opinions related to the topic. Finally, there are an array of articles and related periodicals.
The ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, http://www.abanet.org/cpr/home.html, describes itself as providing "national leadership and vision in developing and interpreting standards and scholarly resources in legal ethics." Its Web site, however, is disappointing. It is well designed and contains ample information about the Center's work, but is surprisingly bare of practical content. It lacks even an online version of the Model Rules, instead only telling how to purchase them in hard copy. Ditto for ethics opinions and the Lawyers' Manual on Professional Conduct. The site does provide headnote summaries of recent opinions of the ABA's Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, although full opinions are available only by purchase. It also provides summaries of recent court cases involving legal ethics. A service called "ETHICSearch" allows lawyers to e-mail ethics questions and receive back citations to authorities that should help them determine the answer.
Legal Ethical Opinions Database, http://www.mwbb.com/leo/leo.htm, contains summaries of Virginia and ABA ethics opinions written by Thomas E. Spahn, a Richmond lawyer. It is well organized, allowing users to browse a table of contents or an alphabetical index, or to obtain the complete list of summaries arranged in chronological order.
James McCauley, http://members.aol.com/jmccauesq/ethics, is ethics counsel for the Virginia State Bar and a prolific writer on legal ethics. His site includes several of his articles, the most ambitious of which is "Survey of the Law of Professional Responsibility in Virginia," which he co-authored for the University of Richmond Law Review. Other articles look at lawyers and the Internet, doctors and lawyers, Chinese walls, and whether accountants are practicing law.
Members of the National Association of Bar Counsel, http://www.nobc.org, are the law enforcement officers of legal ethics. The highlight of NABC's site is its semi-annual compilation of ethics cases. For its twice-yearly meetings, the NABC prepares summaries of new court cases and ethics opinions involving attorney discipline. Summaries for 1996-1998 are available, with each summary's digests organized by topic. The site also lists the staff of every state ethics agency and collects links to notable ethics sites.
The Computer Law Section of the State Bar of Georgia was one of the earliest bar entities to begin exploring the ethical implications of attorneys using the Internet. Its site, NetEthics, http://www.computerbar.org/netethic/netnav.htm, provides an online library of articles on Internet advertising, confidentiality and privilege. It also offers sample Web site disclaimers.
State Legal Advertising Restrictions, http://www.wld.com/direct/restrict.htm, part of West's Legal Directory, is a concise summary of state rules addressing attorney advertising. In addition to synopsizing each state's rules, it highlights those that require particular advertising or specialization disclaimers.
BNA provides current reports from the ABA/BNA Lawyers' Manual On Professional Conduct, http://www.bna.com/prodhome/bus/MOPC.html. Access requires a subscription but you can try it free for 30 days. Free at the site is a two-part 1996 article on Internet ethics. The first part discusses advertising on the 'Net and the second considers e-mail and online legal advice. Both are thorough and well written, but somewhat outdated.
The Law Office Hornbook, http://www.hornbook.com/index.htm, is the online version of a quarterly periodical on malpractice avoidance, firm management and professional liability. The bars of Virginia, Hawaii, New Mexico and Arizona sponsor it as part of the risk management service they provide. Articles cover a range of ethics and professionalism topics.
Legal Ethics and the Practice of Law, http://www.mgovg.com/ethics, is a library of articles on a variety of ethics topics by Charles F. Luce Jr., a Colorado lawyer and a lecturer in legal ethics at the University of Denver. While most focus on Colorado, many of the discussions are of broader interest.
The Utah Legal Ethics Homepage, http://home.utah-inter.net/ethics, was created by Utah lawyer P. Gary Ferrero, a former disciplinary counsel for the State Bar, as a vehicle for helping lawyers avoid ethics complaints and for providing early assistance after a complaint is filed. The site is somewhat sparse, but may be the only online source of the ABA's Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions, a guide for courts and disciplinary bodies.
Ethics of Online Directories, http://prairielaw.com/cgi-local/ethics.cgi, part of the Prairielaw.com paid directory of lawyer listings, is intended as a guide to the ethics of participating in such listings. It includes a searchable directory of the applicable rules for each state, although the results show only opinion numbers or code citations, without text. Worse yet, the information provided for this writer's home state was wrong, citing to an outdated version of the conduct code and failing to mention an ethics opinion directly on point.
Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, http://www.law.georgetown.edu/journals/ethics/ethical.html, appears to be a neglected site, with little sign of attention since 1996. It includes brief summaries of articles from the 1996 and 1995 issues of the journal and an index of pre-1996 articles.
From so lofty an institution as Harvard Law School, its Legal Ethics Web Site, http://www.law.harvard.edu/groups/hlslews/index.html, is a disappointment. A collection of links to ethics rules, articles and sites, it is severely incomplete and out of date. It appears that a graduating student created the site a year ago and that no one has since taken its reins.
The Law and Ethics Home Page, http://www.hpu.edu/law/index.html, maintained by Hawaii Pacific University, is intended to provide students with a launch pad for research into topics related to law and ethics. Its collection of links is cursory and out of date, with not one directly addressing legal ethics.
On Aug. 13, 1998, following a two-year study, a committee of the National Conference of Chief Justices posted to the Internet the National Action Plan on Lawyer Conduct and Professionalism, http://www.ncsc.dni.us/ccj/natlplan.htm. It proposes a plan intended to assist state appellate courts in providing leadership and support for professionalism initiatives. The CCJ is now seeking public comment. The entire plan can be downloaded in a selection of word-processing formats and a summary can be read online. Comments can be submitted by e-mail.
Robert J. Ambrogi (firstname.lastname@example.org), a lawyer in Rockport, Mass., is editor of the Internet newsletter legal.online, http://www.legalonline.com. Past installments of this column are archived at: http://www.legaline.com.