Sunday, November 8, 2009

What Is Your Code Of Ethics?

As lawyers we are all required to follow the ethics rules of our state bar associations. Most are the same - watch the conflicts, communicate with your client, don't get arrested, operate with a good faith basis in litigation, the trust account money isn't yours, advertise within the confines of certain language, and rat on your colleagues if you see them doing something wrong (that always gets a good laugh).

I wonder though if lawyers operate under their own personal code of ethics. Today's young lawyer, desiring more "work/life balance" and finding BigLaw less interested in how great they think they are and their entitlement to a funnel of money to pay off student loans, is on the internet doing Google searches like "how to make money as a lawyer," and "how to market yourself as a lawyer."

Law, is a business. That law is a "profession" is nothing more than a nice topic for ethics seminars and for older lawyers to whine about. The young lawyer is more focused on web marketing and flexible payment plans.

I have a personal code of ethics. It's not written anywhere, and it's a work in progress, but I won't violate it. When I say it's a work in progress, I mean that it has developed with certain experiences and the natural progression of "growing up" as a lawyer.

Here it is:

[1] My client does not dictate how I treat opposing counsel.

Too many lawyers tell me when I ask for something "I have to ask my client/the victim." These requests are generally related to time extensions and issues of rescheduling.

I'm not interested in how "aggressive" your client wants you to be. You, as opposing counsel, and I, have lives. We have families, illnesses, vacations, and just other things going on.

I won't outsource my courtesy to my client's wishes, even if you do. And I won't "be mean" to the prosecutor to put on a show for my client.

[2] I will never take your case just because you "think it's a great case for me."

Let's be honest. Some lawyers decide to take a case if one requirement is met - the client writes a check.

Yes, in the beginning, I took cases I didn't want to take. I represented clients I didn't want to represent. As time went on, I learned that sometimes the best case is the one you don't take. To some, this is not an option. That's too bad. And it's something to reconsider. Being a lawyer is not a commitment to misery in search of the all-mighty dollar.

[3] I will deal with difficult clients, but not those that are difficult in every aspect of the representation.

Client's don't own me. You hired me to represent you. You did not hire me to refrain from vacations, events for my kids, call you back 3 minutes after you call, or be available to every family member and friend that wants to "know what's up with the case." I am also not your bank. You may be a client who needs some extra attention. I'm happy to give that to you. My job is to be available to you when it's necessary for me to be available. My job is not to convince you every minute of every day that your fee, your case, is the only basis of my existence.

[4] I'm not in the referral fee business.

PI lawyers are a unique bunch. They insist on paying referral fees. All of them. OK. It's like arguing over a dinner check. What's the point? You want to pay, fine. Thanks.

I don't pay referral fees. I don't take them either (Save for the PI lawyers that insist). I'm not going to charge $5,000 to a client to handle their case, and pay you $1250 because you made a phone call. Neither will I do that to you. You don't want to refer me a case because I won't pay you, fine. I don't care, really. Go refer your friend, family member, colleague to someone who will line your pocket. I won't tell them your real interest.

[5] I will communicate with lawyers informally (via phone, hallway conversations) until I am given a reason not to do so. Not the reverse.

[6] I will not judge you as a lawyer based on what others say, until you prove to me you are the jerk, liar, scumbag everyone says you are.

This I learned as time went on. I've dealt with prosecutors, civil lawyers, and judges that "everyone" hates. I've had respectful, professional conversations and litigation with some of them. Even if you are "that" prosecutor that everyone talks about, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt on our first encounter.

[7] I'm not handling your legal matter if it's not something I do.

I don't care if it's a phone call. The answer is no.

[8] I will not lie to get a case.

If I've never handled a case like yours, I'll tell you. If I know you are eligible for a dismissal just by showing up by yourself to the arraignment, I'll tell you. If the other lawyer you are talking to is a good lawyer, I will tell you. If you tell me you think this is a simple case, I will tell you I don't handle simple cases and send you on your way.

[9] I will not reschedule a missed appointment as a new client unless there's a good reason.

If this isn't that important to you, it's not that important to me.

[10] I will not be the second lawyer in your case unless your first lawyer has done you an obvious disservice.

If you're "not happy" with your first lawyer, most likely you will not be happy with your second, or third lawyer. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are rare.

[11] Unless I, not you, determine the case will be handled pro-bono, I will not make a phone call, file a pleading, or do anything for you on the "promise" that you will pay me.

It is never the client's fault that the lawyer was not paid. It is always the fault of the lawyer.

[12] No one will ever give you legal advice in your case besides me, or a lawyer designated by me. You hired me, not my assistant. So stop asking her.

[13] On that note, I will not allow you to be disrespectful to my staff.

I see this occasionally. You yell at my assistant because you haven't heard from me in an hour. I get on the phone, and you deny you were rude. I never buy it, and make sure you understand it's not to happen again.

[14] I will never support a judge for re-election that I believe does not belong on the bench.

Lawyers who support the "incumbent" are part of the problem. We are built to effect change, not fall in line like sheep.

[15] I will never outsource my marketing, and if you do, I will never refer you anything.

I know, those who outsource their marketing, don't care from where they get their cases.

So, what do you have? What's part of your personal code of ethics? If you have one.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Please visit