Model Rules of Professional Conduct

Written by Jack Levinson

Beyond mastering the law itself, any lawyer in the United States has diligently studied the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, often abbreviated as the MRPC. Though not technically a set of laws, the rules outlined in the MRPC define the ethical responsibilities of lawyers (and all other positions in the legal profession) as they conduct their jobs, and they are more than guidelines. Instead, they function as the bases for legal ethics rules in all fifty states.

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In nearly every US jurisdiction, aspiring lawyers are expected to have an in-depth knowledge of the MRPC. They must demonstrate this foundational understanding when they complete the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, a multiple choice test that typically is made a prerequisite for taking the bar exam. In other words, before even dealing with the law itself, lawyers are required to be extremely well-acquainted with the code of conduct that will be expected of them in their careers.

So why are the Model Rules of Professional Conduct so important for a lawyer to know? Here, we offer an in-depth exploration through the philosophy and history behind the MRPC.

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The Model Rules of Professional Conduct: An Overview

The MRPC exists to ensure that lawyers, who play immense roles in the arbitration of justice, act according to a clear guideline of ethics. This is, as the State Bar of California explains, “to protect the public and to promote respect and confidence in the legal profession.” Though the Model Rules of Professional Conduct document is not itself the law, it is the official ABA code of ethics, forming the basis of ethical guidelines and lawyer responsibilities in all 50 states. (For context, the American Bar Association is the largest bar association in the country.)

Because they are not laws in and of themselves, the codes of conduct outlined in the MRPC are not federally enforced, but rather they are enforced on a state level after undergoing adaptations and amendments by each state. Enforcement is enacted through disciplinary measures, including disbarment for legal workers who have egregiously violated their state’s code of conduct. In other words, it’s crucial that lawyers are deeply versed in the code of ethics in the state where they practice law. In this way, knowledge of the MRPC is foundational to a study of the law itself, as it outlines how attorneys must wield the great responsibility they are given.

The History of the MRPC

Though the MRPC has long been the standard-bearing document for codes of ethics in law, it is not the first ethical model to be embraced by the US legal system. As the American Bar Association itself explains, the MRPC was adopted in 1983, taking the place of their previous model, the Model Code of Professional Responsibility, which had been established in 1969. This 1969 Code had been preceded by the 1908 Canons of Professional Ethics, which were themselves shaped by earlier codes of responsibility defined by individual states over the previous century.

The 1969 Model Code of Professional Responsibility did not have a long life. Though it had only recently been instated, relatively speaking, it was subject to intensive scrutiny by the ABA following the Watergate scandal, which had implicated numerous attorneys. In 1977, the ABA formed the Kutak Commission, explaining that “many in the [legal] profession feared the very principle of self-governance of the profession to be at risk.

Upon reviewing the Model Code, the ABA determined that a new code of ethics must be defined, not only to rectify the ethical failures raised by the Watergate scandal but also to adapt legal codes of ethics to reflect the many changes that had reshaped the country over the previous century.

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What are the Model Rules of Professional Conduct?

Though it is periodically amended, the MRPC has been the standing ABA code of ethics for nearly forty years. Consequently, the hallmarks of the ABA Model Rules have been enshrined for more than a generation. Though the Model Rules of Professional Conduct do vary from state to state, their basic framework is consistent nationwide.

Categories of Rules

There are eight categories of rules outlined by the MRPC, with each category including up to eighteen individual rules. The categories are as follows:

  • Client-Lawyer Relationship
  • Counselor
  • Advocate
  • Transactions with Persons Other Than Clients
  • Law Firms and Associations
  • Public Service
  • Information About Legal Services
  • Maintaining the Integrity of the Profession

All adaptations and addenda to the MRPC made by individual states fall within these categories; there are not any state codes of conduct that eliminate or add to this list of categories.

Conflict of Interest

One of the most famous ethical dilemmas that working attorneys can face – and one of the most significant parts of the MRPC that aspiring attorneys study – is the conflict of interest. It’s imperative that lawyers live up to their duties as their clients’ advocate, which includes protecting client confidentiality and exercising “independent judgment” on the client’s behalf. Anything interfering with an attorney’s ability to perform these duties is considered a conflict of interest.

Rule 1.7 of the MRPC outlines the different circumstances that might be deemed conflicts of interest, of which there are several, some of which are straightforward and others more unexpected. They include:

Conflicts of Interest Between Clients

If an attorney takes on a new client whose interests are “directly adverse” to an existing client, this is considered a conflict of interest, and the lawyer is prohibited from working with that client. This would mean that the new client was specifically seeking for the attorney to act against their original client, which for obvious reasons would significantly mitigate the attorney’s ability to advocate for both parties justly.

There can be other conflicts of interests between clients that are not so black-and-white, such as instances in which a lawyer’s counsel and recommendations to one client could be limited by knowledge of the other client’s goals and interests. This would also be considered a breach of ethics by the ABA.

Conflicts of Interest Involving Former Clients

The rules of confidentiality that are followed in the case of an active client are also upheld even when the period of active representation by the lawyer is over. This means that an attorney will be in violation of the MRPC if they take on a new client whose interests are at odds with a former client, even if the client is no longer in need of the attorney’s services.

Imputed Conflicts

Attorneys also must consider conflicts of interest when moving between firms, as the work they did for clients represented by their previous firms might be relevant to the work in their new firms. If this is the case, attorneys are obligated to withdraw from working with that client, so that there is not an “imputed” conflict of interest.

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State Adoption of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct

As of 2018, all fifty states have adopted the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct as the basis for their own state-specific legal ethics rules. Indeed, the MRPC is treated as a model rather than a set of laws so that states can have more room to adapt and add to codes of conduct to suit their specific needs. That said, though they are individualized by state, the MRPC codes have become the standard model for legal rules nationwide, and states sometimes work to create consistencies between their codes of conduct to make the law easier to execute. California was the fiftieth state to make the switch, a decision made in part to align the state’s codes of conduct more closely with the guidelines of the rest of the country.

For the most part, the simplest of the MRPC’s rules are maintained across states. These include rules such as Rule 2.1, which defines the “independent professional judgment” that lawyers should exercise in representing a client. However, other rules, such as Rule 1.18, which defines an attorney’s duty to prospective clients, vary greatly from state to state.

Taking the Next Steps to a Legal Career

If you are reading about the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, chances are you’re seriously considering pursuing a career in the legal field. Either as an attorney or in another law-related role, it’s almost certain that you will deeply familiarize yourself with the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct on your journey. Make sure not to neglect educating yourself about these codes of conduct, as they place a crucial check on the legal profession and help define the scope of lawyers’ responsibilities.

If you are interested in learning more about the variety of law careers available, as well as the level of education required and the best online programs to pursue your degree, take a look at our list of legal careers here.