The idea of putting the concept of ethics alongside the career of attorney or lawyer may seem to some about as oxymoronic as the idea of putting intelligence after the word military. Oxymorons aside, there are certain ethical considerations that you should expect when you hire an attorney or lawyer. Each state issues its own particular code of ethics for attorneys as part of its Bar. A lawyer that passes the Bar and becomes licensed to practice law under that Bar must abide by the state’s particular code of ethics or face the consequences. Anyone who watched the O.J. Simpson trial can be forgiven for questioning whether the California Bar does actually, in fact, have a code of ethics. Appearances should lead naturally to the contrary. Rest assured, however, that California is just like all the other 49 states and those who practice law in that state are expected to conform to a set of ethical guidelines.
While each state’s Bar has a different code of ethics, most of them tend toward the following in one form or another. These are the elements that you should expect from an attorney when you hire one or are given one for free courtesy of the state. One of the most basic ethical considerations for an attorney in every state in the union is the understanding that the lawyer will not take on a case he or she is incapable of handling. In other words, if the lawyer you choose was trained and has worked in the field of business taxes, he or she is ethically obligated to inform you that you should look elsewhere for a lawyer to defend you against a charge of murder. Not all attorneys are alike, regardless of what you’ve seen on television. Sometimes, it may even appear on Court TV that an attorney is not able to competently handle a case; the state-appointed attorney team that defended Ted Bundy in his Florida State Univ. murder cases is an elegant case of such. Nevertheless, Bundy’s attorneys were not committing any ethical violations simply because they were bad lawyers must as the prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson trial were not committing ethical violations simply because they were horrendously bad lawyers. Competence is involved in the ethical code of state Bars, but incompetence by those who are capable of handling the case at hand does happen.
Your attorney is ethically committed to keeping you informed of any reasonable settlement offers. If you have been charged with a crime and found guilty and you later find out that your lawyer received an offer to settle that you-in good conscience-would have agreed to, you have the right to sue the lawyer. You will still have to do your time, but you may have some good money waiting when you get out. You may also get the opportunity for a new trial if your lawyer acts unethically by not informing you of legitimate settlement opportunities. This particular code of ethics is in place mainly to keep a lawyer who knows his client is guilty from getting off with a lesser punishment that he-the defendant’s lawyer-thinks is appropriate. Even if a lawyer knows you are without a doubt guilty, he is ethically and legally required to inform you of an offer that lets you get away with murder, in the figurative or even the literal sense of the phrase.
Ethics in the legal profession extend to confidentiality. The attorney/client privilege is often used on television shows to batter the status quo of the legal system in America. If an attorney knows his client is guilty, should he not be forced to acknowledge in the court? The answer is no. Attorney/client confidentiality is one of the cornerstones of the American legal system. Without it, there would be anarchy in the courtroom. The defendant must feel free to say anything to his lawyer without the fear that it will become public knowledge. If your attorney screws up on this ethical consideration, you not only can get a new trial and some spending money when you get out of jail, but your attorney may lose his license or be otherwise punished.
Other ethical obligations perhaps a bit simplistic, but vital nevertheless. Your attorney should always be prompt in returning a phone call. Your attorney should also be available to meet with you face to face in a timely manner. Of course, this one is a two-street ethical boulevard: attorneys want to see you when they ask you questions as it helps to determine if you are lying. The best advice is to keep in mind that the confidentiality agreement is an elemental aspect of your relationship. In other words: don’t like to your lawyer. He or she is probably the only human being on earth you can trust with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.