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Researching Professional Responsibility Issues

Professional responsibility authorities include statutes, case law, court rules, ethics opinions, and articles. The relevance of each depends on the purpose of your research. For example, in proving a malpractice case you are concerned with the requirements of primary law (i.e., statutes, cases). When trying to determine the ethical obligations of yourself or others in your law firm, review the rules of conduct in the applicable jurisdiction and ethics opinions interpreting those rules. For basic understanding of an ethical issue, read articles and reports. Typically your research is confined to a specific jurisdiction, such as a state or a federal court. Start with those authorities.

Rules of Professional Conduct

Each jurisdiction that admits lawyers to practice has ethics rules for those lawyers. Many states base their rules on the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct (the ABA rules are only models - - the rules of the individual jurisdiction govern). State rules of professional conduct are found in various places, such as in a state’s rules of court or its annotated statutes.

The ABA’s Annotated Model Rules of Professional Conduct (call number KF 305.A2, 2nd Floor North Wing) contains the model rules and rule-by-rule summaries of authorities throughout the United States that have interpreted each state’s versions of the model rules.

Online, rules of professional conduct are available through Lexis, Westlaw, and on many court and bar organization web sites. Internet sites with links to states’ rules include:

Case Law

State supreme courts publish cases disciplining lawyers for misconduct. Civil cases may concern lawyer malpractice or disqualification, and even criminal cases may address ethics issues (e.g., ineffective assistance of counsel). Locate these cases through the West digest system, typically using the "Attorney & Client" topic. When researching authorities involving a specific rule of professional conduct, check Shepard’s Professional and Judicial Conduct Citations (Reference Room) for a quick, comprehensive guide to state and federal cases, law reviews, and ALR annotations citing the rule.

Online, cases can be located online through Westlaw, and Lexis.

Ethics Opinions

Ethics opinions interpret and apply the rules of conduct to specific situations. These opinions may be issued by a state supreme court or, more typically, by a committee of a state or local bar organization. Many ethics opinions are advisory only; these do not have the force of law but are considered persuasive authority. A few ethics opinions (generally issued by state supreme courts) are binding. All ethics opinions, whether binding or advisory, are an important source of explanation and illustration for ethics issues.

Ethics opinions are published by the issuing organization. A key resource for ethics opinions from all over the U.S. is the ABA/BNA Lawyers Manual on Professional Conduct (KF305.A8 A23 1984, 2nd Floor North Wing), which summarizes significant opinions and indexes them by topic.

Online, ethics opinions are available on Lexis (under "Area of Law - By Topic," "Ethics"), Westlaw (under Topical Materials by Area of Practice," "Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility"), and Internet sites including the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (


Reading law review articles is a great way to familiarize yourself with the basics of an ethics issue. The author frequently cites to all of the major authorities on the topic, saving you time and effort. Locate relevant articles through the Index to Legal Periodicals or the Current Law Index (both shelved in the Reference Room).

Online, locate law review articles through the topical areas of Westlaw and Lexis, or through Westlaw’s Legal Resource Index (database LRI).

Another good source when beginning research on an unfamiliar topic is the ABA/BNA Lawyers Manual on Professional Conduct, containing commentary on ethics topics and discussing cases and ethics opinions from around the country.

Online, the Lawyers Manual is available through Westlaw (database ABA-BNA).

Florida Ethics Research

The Florida Rules of Professional Conduct ("RPC") comprise Chapter 4 of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. The RPC are published in: the September issue of the Florida Bar Journal; West’s Florida Rules of Court; Volume 35 of Florida Statutes Annotated; and Professional Ethics of The Florida Bar (Florida Bar's Publications Department). Ethics Opinions issued by the Florida Bar Professional Ethics Committee are published in Professional Ethics of The Florida Bar.

Online, in addition to Lexis and Westlaw the RPC are on the Florida Bar's web site (, which also has a searchable database of Florida ethics opinions.