Careers in Legal Ethics: Serving the Profession as the Lawyer’s Lawyer

Stephanie Pauly
Assistant bar counsel interact with lawyers seeking ethics advice and those who have been accused of professional misconduct.

Assistant bar counsel interact with lawyers seeking ethics advice and those who have been accused of professional misconduct.

Nick White/DigitalVision via GettyImages

As lawyers, we should all be familiar with the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. It is part of the required curriculum at ABA-accredited law schools and a passing score on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) is required for admission to most jurisdictions. However, many new and experienced lawyers alike are unaware that there is a career path in professional responsibility. Though often not considered, practice opportunities in the field of legal ethics are surprisingly wide-ranging and appealable to lawyers with a diverse range of strengths and talents. 

Focus on compliance and risk management has led to increased hiring by large firms and corporations at entry-level positions, such as conflicts counsel and associate ethics/risk management counsel. These attorneys are responsible for ensuring the firm’s compliance with conflict of interest and other rules of professional conduct in accepting new clients, new matters, or hiring new attorneys.

In the public sector, assistant bar counsel are hired by a jurisdiction’s licensing and regulatory authority to assist lawyers with ethical questions and investigate and prosecute lawyers accused of ethical misconduct. Attorneys in this role gain experience in litigation, motion practice, legal research, and evidence review, in addition to becoming an expert on the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Assistant bar counsel interact with lawyers engaged in all areas of legal practice—both those seeking ethics advice and those who have been accused of professional misconduct. Therefore, it is helpful to have assistant bar counsel with experience in a variety of legal backgrounds. This can present a great opportunity for a lawyer feeling burnt out in their current practice area and looking for a change.

Professional responsibility lawyers have the opportunity to advance their careers in a multitude of ways. They may become an ethics partner or director of risk management within a large firm or corporation. Many have started practices or joined firms that specialize in consulting with and advising lawyers and law firms on ethics and risk management issues or defending lawyers accused of misconduct before state disciplinary boards. Many go on to teach ethics courses at law schools, present at CLE conferences, serve as expert witnesses, or become part of the judiciary.

For young lawyers interested in a career in professional responsibility, the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility recommends that you familiarize yourself with the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and get involved with your state or city bar’s ethics committee. These committees are regularly asked to issue opinions on emerging issues in the profession and are often in need of a new lawyer’s perspective. This offers a great opportunity for young lawyers to gain experience and develop recognition in the field.

Professional responsibility lawyers help other lawyers better serve their clients and ensure that they are doing so ethically and responsibly. It is a rewarding career that is great for anyone who enjoys the challenge of being a problem solver, teacher, researcher, writer, listener, and advocate; sometimes all on the same day. Though often overlooked, a career in legal ethics is not only possible but has the potential to be a source of opportunity that more young lawyers should start considering. 

For more in-depth information on this topic, watch the ABA Career Center Career Choice webinar on a career in legal ethics and risk managementBecause this is a niche area, lawyers who practice in it are often sought after for their expertise as experts and authors. It’s a great fit for someone who likes the flexibility of doing both litigation and policy work. Note: This is not for CLE. The recorded program and materials are exclusively for ABA members.

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Stephanie Pauly is staff counsel at the American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility in Chicago, Illinois.