In 1908, the American Bar Association (ABA) promulgated the Canons of Professional Ethics. The Canons were intended to guide attorneys in matters of ethical behavior.
The Canons were succeeded in 1969 by the Model Code of Professional Responsibility. The Model Code consists of canons, ethical considerations, and disciplinary rules. The canons and ethical considerations are aspirational (what attorneys should do). The disciplinary rules are mandatory (what attorneys must do) and state the “minimum level of conduct below which no lawyer can fall without being subject to disciplinary action,” (see "Preliminary Statement," Model Code of Professional Responsibility (1983)).
In 1983, the ABA adopted the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to replace the Code.1 The Rules set forth the duties of a lawyer. The comment to the Rules states that “[v]iolation of a Rule should not give rise to a cause of action nor should it create any presumption that a legal duty has been breached. The Rules are designed to provide guidance to lawyers and to provide a structure for regulating conduct through disciplinary agencies.” Since the ABA is a private organization, its ethics rules generally do not have the force of law and the Rules have no legal effect unless affirmatively adopted by the controlling jurisdiction.
All states, with the exception of California, have adopted rules of professional conduct that follow the format of the ABA Model Rules. (See the ABA Model Rules page.) California has its own rules. (See the California Legal Ethics LibGuide.)
Attorneys who violate the disciplinary rules set forth in their jurisdiction are subject to discipline, which may consist of disbarment, suspension, or public or private reprimand. The intent of attorney discipline is to protect the public, the courts, and the legal profession.
1 The Model Rules have been amended a number of times since 1983. The last substantial changes to the rules were adopted by the American Bar Association in 2003.
Ethics Opinions are issued by the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility. They construe the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility (prior to 1983, they construed the Model Code). They are not binding on any court or disciplinary body, but are considered highly persuasive authority.
Since 1922, the ABA Committee on Professional Ethics has issued formal and informal ethics opinions that interpret the Canons of Professional and Judicial Ethics, the Model Code of Professional Responsibility, and the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Formal Opinions are interpretations of the Rules that the Committee believes to be of general interest. In Informal Opinions, the Committee addresses questions that are narrower in scope and arise less frequently.