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Six Ethical Rules Every Young Lawyer Must Know

Michael LeBoff


  • Young lawyers must know their limitations and avoid getting in over their heads.
  • Poor communication is often the chief cause of malpractice cases.
  • A recent California case discusses the importance of treating the court and opposing counsel with integrity and respect.
Six Ethical Rules Every Young Lawyer Must Know
Kobus Louw via Getty Images

Being a lawyer is hard. And the early years may be the hardest. You lack control over your day-to-day work because assignments are handed out by senior attorneys. Young lawyers are often competing against more experienced and confident lawyers. Financially, young attorneys tend to make less than experienced lawyers yet may be saddled with law school debt, trying to purchase a first home, or dealing with other post–law school expenses. Yes, being a young lawyer is hard.

The ethical rules, however, do not care. Young lawyers must strictly comply with the same set of ethical rules as more experienced lawyers or risk ending a promising career before it fully gets off the ground. This article highlights six ethical rules from ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct that every young lawyer must know—although all lawyers must know and adhere to all ethical rules.

Rule 1.1: Competence

Rule 1.1, and its state law counterparts, is the quintessential ethical rule. It applies to young and old lawyers alike. Short and sweet, Rule 1.1 states thus:

A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

Even as younger attorneys learn their trade, they are obligated to act competently and devote necessary time to the representation. Young lawyers are often far more competent than they believe and will develop competence over time. But young lawyers must also know their limitations and avoid getting in over their heads.

Young lawyers are often asked to take on more than they can handle. Young lawyers need to recognize when they are getting overwhelmed to the point where the clients could be adversely impacted. When this happens, young lawyers need to have the courage to say no to certain assignments or know to whom in their firm to go for support.

Young lawyers also have a responsibility to ensure that they are getting proper training, supervision, and mentoring. This means that young lawyers cannot be afraid to ask for help from supervising attorneys. If a firm is not providing training and mentoring, then consider changing firms. There are many firms willing to invest in developing young lawyers. Find one.

Rule 1.4: Communications

As an attorney who frequently handles legal malpractice cases, I find that poor communication is the leading cause of malpractice cases. Rule 1.4 governs an attorney’s ethical duties to communicate with clients. It reads thus:

(a) A lawyer shall:
(1)  promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent, as defined in Rule 1.0(e), is required by these Rules;
(2) reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished;
(3) keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter;
(4) promptly comply with reasonable requests for information; and
(5) consult with the client about any relevant limitation on the lawyer’s conduct when the lawyer knows that the client expects assistance not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.
A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.

There are many things attorneys should discuss with clients on a regular basis, such as deadlines, budgets, significant case developments, and settlement offers. It is easy to give clients good news. It is much harder to give clients bad news. That is part of the job. It is not easy, but it has to be done.

The duty to communicate also comes into play when attorneys make a mistake. All attorneys make mistakes, and young attorneys make many. Fortunately, most mistakes are correctable if you acknowledge the error and promptly correct it. This includes coming clean to the client. Many lawyers, acting out of fear or embarrassment, however, are not up-front with clients about mistakes. Rather than address and fix a mistake, some attorneys hope the mistake simply goes away. When it does not, expect the malpractice lawyers to appear.

Rule 3.4: Fairness to Opposing Party and Counsel

A recent California case discusses the importance of treating the court and opposing counsel with integrity and respect. In Moore v. Superior Court, the California Court of Appeal affirmed a contempt order against an attorney found to have been rude and unprofessional during a settlement conference. According to the opinion, the attorney persistently yelled and interrupted others, accused opposing counsel of lying without any supporting evidence, and refused to engage in settlement discussions. In addition to assessing a fine, the court referred the attorney to the state bar. Even worse, there is now a published opinion that will follow this attorney throughout the remainder of his career.

Young lawyers must learn from others’ mistakes and remember that there are consequences for incivility in the practice of law. Model Rule 3.4 requires the following:

A lawyer shall not:
(a) unlawfully obstruct another party’s access to evidence or unlawfully alter, destroy or conceal a document or other material having potential evidentiary value. A lawyer shall not counsel or assist another person to do any such act;
(b) falsify evidence, counsel or assist a witness to testify falsely, or offer an inducement to a witness that is prohibited by law;
(c) knowingly disobey an obligation under the rules of a tribunal, except for an open refusal based on an assertion that no valid obligation exists;
(d) in pretrial procedure, make a frivolous discovery request or fail to make reasonably diligent effort to comply with a legally proper discovery request by an opposing party;
(e) in trial, allude to any matter that the lawyer does not reasonably believe is relevant or that will not be supported by admissible evidence, assert personal knowledge of facts in issue except when testifying as a witness, or state a personal opinion as to the justness of a cause, the credibility of a witness, the culpability of a civil litigant or the guilt or innocence of an accused; or
(f) request a person other than a client to refrain from voluntarily giving relevant information to another party unless:
(1) the person is a relative or an employee or other agent of a client; and
(2) the lawyer reasonably believes that the person’s interests will not be adversely affected by refraining from giving such information.

Young attorneys may find themselves being pressured by an unscrupulous client or partner to violate this ethical obligation. But the system depends on attorneys resisting that pressure. It is important that young lawyers learn the importance of doing the right thing when nobody is watching.

Rule 5.2: Responsibilities of a Subordinate Lawyer

This is one of the few rules specifically addressed to young lawyers. It provides thus:

(a) A lawyer is bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct notwithstanding that the lawyer acted at the direction of another person.
(b) A subordinate lawyer does not violate the Rules of Professional Conduct if that lawyer acts in accordance with a supervisory lawyer’s reasonable resolution of an arguable question of professional duty.

In essence, being a young or subordinate attorney is not an excuse for violating the ethical rules. And except for arguable questions of professional duty, “just following orders” will not excuse ethical violations. Given this, young attorneys need to take responsibility for their own ethical compliance.

Rule 8.4(g): Misconduct

One of the newer additions to the Model Rules, Rule 8.4(g), reads thus:

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:
(g) engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law. This paragraph does not limit the ability of a lawyer to accept, decline or withdraw from a representation in accordance with Rule 1.16. This paragraph does not preclude legitimate advice or advocacy consistent with these Rules.

Despite great contributions by some, prior generations of lawyers have not done a superb job of eliminating bias in the legal profession. The responsibility now falls on the current generation of attorneys. It starts by adopting a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination and harassment, and bringing such misconduct to light.

Preamble, Subsection 7: Beyond Ethical Rules

The preamble to the ABA Model Rules contains multiple subparts, all of which are important and worth reviewing. Subsection 7, however, is of particular interest to young lawyers. Subsection 7 reads thus:

Many of a lawyer’s professional responsibilities are prescribed in the Rules of Professional Conduct, as well as substantive and procedural law. However, a lawyer is also guided by personal conscience and the approbation of professional peers. A lawyer should strive to attain the highest level of skill, to improve the law and the legal profession and to exemplify the legal profession’s ideals of public service.

This subsection summarizes the purpose of the ethical rules, which sets the floor—not the ceiling—for ethical conduct. In other words, the ethical rules do not replace your own personal judgment and value system. The ethical rules cannot possibly cover every situation that you will face as an attorney. It is important, therefore, for young attorneys to be true to their own personal set of values and continue to develop a sense of how to ethically practice law.


As stated, being a lawyer is hard. As young lawyers develop and grow into the profession, it is critical for them to start their legal career on the right ethical foot. Ethical lapses early in your career may have consequences that follow you forever. Keeping these six rules in mind will start you down the right path toward a long and rewarding career.