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Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility Research: Overview

Guide to sources on how to conduct legal research in legal ethics and professional responsibility, including New York.

Law students and attorneys need to know how to research in the area of legal ethics and professional responsibility. This guide provides an overview of the resources necessary to conduct such research. The commercial databases included in this guide are available to current students and faculty at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. For assistance accessing any of these materials, please contact the Reference Desk at reference@law.pace.edu

Here are some general research strategies to keep in mind:

  • Researching professional responsibility issues is like researching for many other legal issues. Identify your issues first and then identify the relevant constitutions, statutes, regulations, court rules, ethics rules, case law, ethics opinions, and secondary sources.
  • Consult an annotated version of the ethics code you are researching, if available. Annotated versions of ABA and state ethics codes include analysis written by experts in the field, and include links to relevant cases, ethics opinions, etc. This can be particularly helpful if there is an annotated code available for the jurisdiction you are researching.
  • Determine the structure and origin of the ethics rules in effect in your jurisdiction. This will help you to find relevant cases and other materials. If you are consulting an annotated code, the introduction will usually contain this information. Other useful sources can be state bar association websites, and law review articles or state bar journal articles written on the topic.
  • Although there are law reviews that focus on specific areas of law, such as legal ethics, do not limit your searches to just those subject specific publications. Remember that any law review can publish a an article on legal ethics, so always include some searches in a database containing all law reviews, without narrowing by publication or jurisdiction.
  • Ethics opinions, unlike cases, are not binding. Ethics opinions can help courts  understand how a bar association has applied a rule to a set of facts..

Lucie Olejnikova created this guide, and it was maintained by Cynthia Pittson. Vicky Gannon revised the guide in April 2020 and currently maintains the guide.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has a history of promulgating standards or model codes dating back to the 1908 Canons of Professional Ethics. The Canons were originally treated as private law that applied only to members of the ABA. Eventually, many states adopted the Canons as law, enabling courts to sanction lawyers who violated the rules set out in the Canons.

The Canons were amended over the years, and in 1969 the ABA adopted the Code of Professional Responsibility, later known as the Model Code of Professional Responsibility. The 1969 Model Code of Professional Responsibility was amended over the years adopted for use by many state and federal courts. The structure of the Model Code of Professional Responsibility was a system of Canons, each of which had Ethical Considerations (EC) which were aspirational, and Disciplinary Rules (DR) which were mandatory.  

In 1983, the ABA adopted the Model Rules of Professional Conduct with a structure of black letter Rule, followed by a Comment. The 1983 Model Rules of Professional Conduct have been adopted by many states and have also been amended many times throughout the years. The next major set of revisions to the Model Rules came with the ABA's Ethics 2000 Commission. The Commission decided to issue revisions to the 1983 Model Rules instead of issuing an entirely new set of rules. This system of revision has continued throughout the 2000s with the most recent revision taking place in 2018. 

It is important to remember that some states follow the 1969 Model Code, some use language from the 1983 Model Rules prior to the Ethics 2000 amendments, some have adopted the 2000 and following rules, and others have their own system of rules.  Also, states don't always adopt each of the amendments that the ABA makes so it is important to determine which version of the Model Code / Model Rules your state uses when looking for relevant case law. An understanding of the structure and origin of the ethics rules in effect in your jurisdiction will help you to find relevant cases and other materials.

 

There are number of places to consult when researching legal ethics and professional responsibility.

Model Rules including ABA Model Rules and states' model rules. 

Statutes and Rules and Regulations include statutory text, court rules, and rules and regulations enacted by the body designated in the statute.

Ethics Opinions include restatements of laws and rules providing better understanding. 

Case Law includes legal ethics judicial opinions including state or federal case law.

Scholarly Writings include law reviews that regularly publish scholarly articles on professional responsibility, and introductions, treatises, and handbooks.

Newspapers, particularly legal press covering stories relating to professional responsibility.

Online or website sources include organizations, associations, law firms, commercial sites, and blogs.