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Practice Management

Rules of Ethics: Client Relationships

Kernisha Padilla


  • We often face gut-checking scenarios where it may be unclear if there is an ethical issue. These three steps will ensure you are protecting yourself and your client.
Rules of Ethics: Client Relationships
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The rules of ethics, more commonly referred to as the rules of professional conduct, is the one set of rules that applies and governs lawyers regardless of specific practice areas or expertise. It governs how a lawyer may act, even when not engaging in the practice of law. Law schools everywhere touch on professional responsibility and ethics to help us prepare for the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) to help guide us as we transition from law student to lawyer. However, passing the MPRE doesn’t mean we know all the answers to ethical dilemmas. The duties we have to ourselves, our clients, our firms, and our professions mean that we must possess critical skills when facing tough or unclear ethical issues in our careers.

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct

Generally, a lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation. While on its face, this may seem unequivocal, it is quite complex. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct consist of 8.5 rules, each with subsets, comments, and annotations that help guide us in our careers. While each rule is important and provides guidance on various matters, Rules 1.1–1.18 set the stage for client relationships—ranging from topics such as

Client relationships are the foundation for business development.

Listen, Pay Attention, and Seek Guidance

We often face gut-checking scenarios where it may be unclear if there is an ethical issue. The uncertainty is where many young lawyers struggle and are unsure of what next steps they should take to avoid ethical issues. Here are three steps to ensure you are protecting yourself and your client should you face an ethical dilemma: Listen, Pay attention, and Seek guidance.


One of the best things you can do is listen. Attentively listen to your clients’ needs and wants to see if there might be an issue that the Rules of Professional Conduct may prevent you from advocating on their behalf. Listen to experienced attorneys who might have gone through these issues before and have a solution to help avoid costly mistakes should you find yourself in an ethical dilemma. Most importantly—listen to yourself. Often, we know and have a sense of when an issue doesn’t seem right. Listen to yourself and dig deeper to find an answer.

Be Honest

You should be diligent in your representations with your client, including having a high level of attention to detail and advocacy in your role. However, it also means being honest if you haven’t. Candor doesn’t only extend to knowing your competency but also knowing when to admit you don’t know something or are unclear on an issue. Being honest also can mean speaking up to experienced attorneys and admitting fault when necessary.

Seek Guidance

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct are updated, annotated, and used nationwide. There are numerous scenarios and ethical issues that have been discussed for years. Use this information to help make a decision should you face an issue. Additionally, state and local bar associations typically have ethics hotlines or email addresses where you can seek guidance without disclosing confidential information. You are already required to stay abreast of current ethical developments; keep it up.