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California Legal Ethics: Overview

This guide outlines the state statutes and rules that govern attorney conduct in California. Print and electronic resources are listed as a means to provide the researcher with a general understanding of California legal ethics.

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While most other states have adopted either the ABA Model Code or ABA Model Rules to govern attorney conduct, the California Supreme Court has adopted an entirely different set of rules, the California Rules of Professional Conduct. The conduct of California attorneys is also governed by the California Constitution (art. VI, § 9); the State Bar Act (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 6000 et seq.); state and local ethics opinions; and state and local rules of court. The conduct of California judges is governed by the California Code of Judicial Ethics. For information on ABA rules, consult the Law Library Research Guide, National Legal Ethics Research Guide.

Created by the state legislature in 1927, the State Bar is a public corporation within the judicial branch of government, serving as an arm of the California Supreme Court. California has a unified, or integrated bar, which means bar membership is mandatory for all attorneys who are licensed to practice law in the state. For more information on the State Bar of California, please see The State Bar of California: Overview.

The California State Bar has the responsibility of regulating the practice of law in California, including admission to the bar and discipline of attorneys. The State Bar is also responsible for enforcing state laws regulating the unlawful practice of law and illegal solicitation of clients (see Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 6125-33, §§ 6150-56).

The disciplinary process in California consists of a series of investigations by the State Bar. If not resolved, the case is eventually forwarded to the State Bar Court, which decides all attorney discipline cases in California. Created in 1988, the State Bar Court is an arm of the California Supreme Court. Its decisions are subject to discretionary (non-mandatory) review by the California Supreme Court.

Ethics opinions are issued by California state and local bar associations to provide guidance on how the ethical rules might apply to theoretical fact situations but are not meant to be binding or dispositive of particular situations. The State Bar Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct, for example, is barred from issuing advisory opinions where a disciplinary action is pending, Formal Opinion 1965-1.

Getting Started: Suggested Reading

Most of the resources in this guide can be found on the California State Bar's Ethics page. This site includes the California Rules of Professional Conduct, the State Bar Act and ethics opinions. Researchers may wish to start at this valuable and comprehensive site. Another useful resource provided on the State Bar website is Publication 250, which provides access to relevant state ethics materials including constitutional provisions and court rules.

Important Note About Access to Databases

Be sure to read the Access to Databases Guide carefully before beginning your research.

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