Although lawyer jokes might sometimes portray the profession as unscrupulous, lawyers actually have a very stringent code of ethics. A lawyer who violates the code might be subject to sanctions up to and including disbarment, and could lose her license to practice. In addition to the national code of ethics, individual states typically have a code of ethics.
The Client-Lawyer Relationship
The American Bar Association has developed an extensive code of ethics that covers issues such as the client-lawyer relationship, conflicts of interest, a lawyer’s duties, fees and many other topics. Of these, the client-lawyer relationship, which includes fees, is the most extensive. For example, lawyers must set reasonable fees that take into account such issues as the community standard. They must also be clear to the client on whether the fee is fixed or contingent -- related to the amount of a legal settlement. Any changes in fees must be communicated to the client.
Keeping it Confidential
Confidentiality is another major issue in legal ethics. Lawyers cannot reveal information about their client or case unless the client provides informed consent. In addition, a lawyer is bound to make reasonable efforts not to inadvertently reveal information about a client. However, if a lawyer knows something about a client that might result in another person’s death or substantial bodily harm, the lawyer is not bound by confidentiality rules. Lawyers are not being unethical if they break confidentiality to prevent a crime, fraud or substantial financial damage to another person.
The ABA notes that conflict of interest issues arise when representation of one client might harm another client. For example, a lawyer could not represent both the plaintiff and the defendant in the same case. In some cases, however, a lawyer might represent two clients in related cases if both clients consent. The ABA also looks at the issue of potential conflicts of interest with current and former clients differently. Lawyers cannot enter into business associations with current clients at all, although they might do so with a former client after sufficient time has passed.
Some state bar associations use the ABA code in its entirety, while others might make modifications. For example, the ABA code requires a lawyer who is holding a client’s property or funds to maintain records for five years. In Ohio, the lawyer must keep records for seven years. Although the ABA does not address the issue, Pennsylvania has specific expectations for lawyers who are acting as lobbyists. California addresses the issue of selling and buying a law practice in its code of ethics.
2016 Salary Information for Lawyers
Lawyers earned a median annual salary of $118,160 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, lawyers earned a 25th percentile salary of $77,580, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $176,580, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 792,500 people were employed in the U.S. as lawyers.