Legal.online, April 2000Copyright 2000 Robert J. Ambrogi
Not since lawyers began advertising in the Yellow Pages has the field of legal ethics seen so much turmoil, much of it fueled by the Internet and the unique opportunities it presents. But even as the Internet is creating new quandaries, it is helping to resolve them. Web sites devoted to legal ethics provide lawyers and consumers easy access to conduct codes, ethics opinions and practical debate.
The best of these sites is the American Legal Ethics Library, http://wwwsecure.law.cornell.edu/ethics, from Cornell University's Legal Information Institute. This digital library contains the full text of the professional-conduct codes or rules for most U.S. states, as well as the ABA's model code. In addition, major law firms have contributed narratives on professional-conduct law in their respective states. Materials are organized by both state and topic, and all are fully searchable. As of March 2000, the narratives covered Arkansas, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, with other states to be added.
A site of consistently high quality since its creation in 1995, 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 includes a list of all ethics opinions relating to the Internet, organized by state, with links to the full text when available.
Legalethics.com is also home to the WebEthics Forum, http://www.legalethics.com/webethics.htm, a threaded, hypertext discussion focusing on the ethical issues associated with Internet use by legal professionals. Unfortunately, although commendable in concept, the forum has seen little activity, with no new messages posted since August 1999.
A disappointing counterpoint to these sites is the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, http://www.abanet.org/cpr/home.html. Although well designed and containing ample information about the center's work, it is surprisingly sparse in terms of practical content. One would expect at least an online version of the Model Rules, but instead the site only tells how to purchase them in hard copy. Ditto for ethics opinions; the site provides summaries of recent ABA ethics opinions, but full opinions are available only by purchase. A service called "ETHICSearch" allows lawyers to e-mail the center concerning situations that pose ethics issues and receive back citations to the authorities that should help them understand and resolve the problem.
Among the full text documents the site does publish are several of the codes of professional courtesy adopted by various state and local bar associations. It also offers the full text of the ABA Model Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement and the Model Rules for Judicial Disciplinary Enforcement. In fairness, the part of the site devoted to the Commission on Multidisciplinary Practice, http://www.abanet.org/cpr/multicom.html, is top-notch, with a complete library of reports, transcripts and other documents tracing the history and current status of this debate.
The ABA's Web site does not include the highly regarded ABA/BNA Lawyers' Manual On Professional Conduct, but BNA does provide Web access to current reports from the manual, http://web.bna.com/mopccr.htm. Updated every other week, the Web version requires a subscription, but you can sign up online for a free trial and review a sample issue. Elsewhere on BNA's site are three articles on legal ethics and the Internet, http://www.bna.com/prodhome/bus/MOPC.html. Two from 1996 discuss Internet advertising, e-mail and online legal advice. Both are thorough and well written, but somewhat outdated. The third, from March 2000, is an updated look at the uncharted waters of providing legal advice online.
Two organizations of lawyers who toil in the fields of ethics have Web sites worth a visit. Members of the National Association of Bar Counsel, http://www.nobc.org, might be called the law-enforcement officers of legal ethics. For its twice-yearly meetings, the NABC prepares summaries of new court cases and ethics opinions involving attorney discipline. Since 1996, it has published these on its Web site, with each summary's digests organized by topic. The site also includes the staff roster of every state ethics agency and a collection of links to notable ethics sites.
The Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, http://www.aprl.net, is a national organization of lawyers concentrating in the fields of professional responsibility and legal ethics. Its members include professors, bar counsel, legal malpractice litigators, in-house law firm ethics counsel, and the like. For non-members, the sole reason to visit this site is for its thorough and up-to-date library of links, which includes state ethics codes, ethics opinions, bar associations, and other sites related to ethics or malpractice.
A handful of sites take a more provincial approach, focusing on the ethics rules of a particular state. A standout among these is the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism, http://www.txethics.org. Although of greatest use to lawyers in Texas, it provides materials of broader interest, including two online courses on ethics and law practice. The site has the complete text of the Texas disciplinary rules, together with tables comparing and cross-referencing them to the current and former ABA Model Rules. It has the full text of Texas Supreme Court Professional Ethics Committee opinions and a summary of court opinions related to the topic. Finally, there is an array of articles and related periodicals.
Other state-focused sites include:
- James McCauley's Home Page, http://members.aol.com/jmccauesq/ethics. Ethics counsel for the Virginia State Bar, McCauley is also a prolific writer of articles concerning legal ethics. The most ambitious surveys the law of professional responsibility in Virginia. Other articles look at lawyers and the Internet, doctors and lawyers, Chinese walls, and whether accountants are practicing law. McCauley provides the complete text of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, which took effect Jan. 1, 2000, along with charts and tables analyzing changes in the rules from Virginia's former Code of Professional Responsibility. The site also provides full-text opinions of the Virginia Committee on Lawyer Advertising and Solicitation.
- Legal Ethical Opinions Database, http://www.mwbb.com/leo/leo.htm. This site contains summaries of Virginia and ABA ethics opinions written by Thomas E. Spahn, a lawyer with the Richmond firm McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe. 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. It appears not to be current; the site indicates it was last updated in December 1999, but it has ABA opinions only through 1989 and Virginia opinions only through June 1999.
- Legal Ethics and the Practice of Law, http://www.mgovg.com/ethics. Charles F. Luce Jr., a partner in the Colorado firm Moye, Giles, O'Keefe, Vermeire & Gorrell, and a lecturer in legal ethics at the University of Denver, offers a library of his articles on a range of ethics topics. While most focus on Colorado, many of the discussions are of broader interest. The most recent are from 1998, which makes this library slightly behind the times.
- NetEthics, http://www.computerbar.org/netethic/netnav.htm. 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 NetEthics Committee maintains this online library of articles on Internet advertising, confidentiality and privilege. It also offers sample Web site disclaimers. The site appears to be out of date, with no new articles added for several years.
Finally, if you have found yourself thinking about moving to warmer climes, but been stymied by that nasty issue of bar admission, here is help. CrossingtheBar.com, http://www.crossingthebar.com, provides a state-by-state guide to reciprocity rules. So far, the site covers slightly more than half the states, but new information is being added regularly and will eventually cover all U.S. states, territories and possessions.
Robert J. Ambrogi is director of the American Lawyer Media News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.