A Lawyer’s Lawyer: Spotlight on Ethics Counsel

Lawyers across America are bound by common professional ideals—a duty of loyalty to clients, a desire to solve problems, and devotion to the rule of law. Bar ethics counsel—employed by the American Bar Association’s Center for Professional Responsibility and almost every state in the union—are the staff lawyers who devote their time and talent to help other lawyers develop a deeper understanding of their professional obligations.

Jeanne Marie Clavere, professional responsibility counsel with the Washington State Bar Association, notes that her mission is to “equip members with skills for the changing profession. This involves providing tools, mentoring and coordinated support to bar members to enable them to ground their work in the ethical practice of law.” Ethics counsel field technical questions about the meaning and scope of the rules of professional conduct, teach CLEs on ethics and professionalism, and help well-meaning lawyers evaluate their options when faced with ethical dilemmas.

A Day in the Life

One day as ethics counsel is never the same as the next. Depending on the jurisdiction, questions from bar members may be accepted by phone, in writing, or in person. While bar ethics counsel do not form an attorney-client relationship with members, they often provide a sympathetic ear and respond with an analysis of pertinent rules, cites to relevant ethics opinions and case law, and their own first impressions of the issues. Lawyers regularly call with straightforward questions about possible conflicts, their duty of confidentiality, trust account issues, and how to properly withdraw from representing a client. “I love the fact that the legal professionals calling the Ethics Line, asking probing questions at CLEs and literally stopping me in the street with a question are seeking to improve and enhance their understanding of professional responsibility,” says Clavere.

“We have been providing ethics research services to lawyers throughout the country for many years,” says Peter Geraghty, director of the ETHICSearch Service operated through the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility in Chicago. He noted that the service has “an extensive database of responses to ethics questions and have also published nearly 150 articles on various legal ethics topics that enable us to respond to most inquires with cites to relevant ABA, state and local bar association ethics opinions and other authorities within 24 hours. Every day, I feel that we save lawyers from having to reinvent the wheel.”

Bar ethics counsel often talk to lawyers in moments of professional crisis—a client may be planning perjury or criminal activity, a lawyer may have made a serious mistake, or opposing counsel may have threatened disqualification. When the stakes are high, timely access to good information is paramount. In my experience, helping lawyers better understand their obligations and problem solve in stressful situations is often the most rewarding part of the job.

Providing helpful ethics advice frequently depends on developing a sufficient understanding of an underlying substantive area of law. Wisconsin State Bar Ethics Counsel Aviva Kaiser explains, “Many ethics dilemmas reflect the intersection of ethics and a particular substantive area of law, such as bankruptcy, estate planning, criminal prosecution or defense, or family law. Often the answers are not readily apparent, and the analysis becomes more nuanced.” These in-depth conversations about real-life practice are a touchstone of ethics counsel’s experience. On a good day, Kaiser notes, “Through our discussions, both the lawyers and I continue our professional growth and our understanding of our ethical obligations.”

Ethics counsel’s insights into tough ethics problems may also help lawyers avoid making an error that could result in discipline. Laura Chastain, ethics counsel for the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, remarks, “After prosecuting lawyers for 17 years, I love having the opportunity to help lawyers understand their ethical obligations before they get into trouble.” Some states, such as Oregon, provide that members who act in reliance on a written opinion from bar ethics counsel can use the opinion to show good faith effort to comply with the rules or as a basis for mitigation of any sanction imposed, if they are later subject to discipline.

In a time when our society is experiencing rapid change and public trust in institutions seems to be slipping, ethics counsel strive to strengthen our culture of professionalism and ensure that lawyers have the tools they need to meet their ethical obligations. Jeanne Marie Clavere reflects that, ultimately, ethics counsel enable “the professionals licensed in our state to better serve the public.”

Hope Todd, assistant director for legal ethics and regulation counsel for the District of Columbia Bar, sees her mission as serving both members of the D.C. bar and the public-at-large. She observes, “Like most people, I joined the profession to help people, to solve problems, to make a difference. Every day I have the great privilege of assisting other lawyers to understand and to navigate the ethical mandates that make us professionals. Teaching, supporting and encouraging lawyers to be ethical has the collateral benefit of providing clients with better lawyers.” At the end of the day, Todd concludes, “Who could ask for more than that?”

Becoming Ethics Counsel

The paths to a job as ethics counsel are as varied as the lawyers who serve. Aviva Kaiser joined the Wisconsin State Bar as ethics counsel after spending over 25 years in academia, educating University of Wisconsin law students about the rules of professional conduct. Now she advises some of the very students she taught on ethics conundrums they face as lawyers. “One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is that I still teach,” Aviva remarks. “I was truly grateful for the opportunity to help law students form their professional identities. Through CLE presentations and ethics hotline calls, I have the opportunity to help lawyers strengthen their professional identities by guiding them through their ethical dilemmas.”

Jeanne Marie Clavere began serving as the WSBA’s professional responsibility counsel after more than 20 years a solo and small firm civil and criminal litigation practitioner. She finds that her past legal experience gives her empathy for the lawyers she counsels, as well as a “down-home practical perspective” on ethical dilemmas.

My own journey to a job as ethics counsel came after a clerkship and stint as a litigator in a big law firm. Interested in a career in public service, I accepted a position working on a governor’s legal staff, and soon found myself advising public officials about their government ethics obligations. That position led to serving in the General Counsel’s Office of the Oregon State Bar, where I now provide members with prospective ethics advice about their own conduct and serve as in-house counsel to the bar.

First Steps

If reading this article has sparked your interest in a professional responsibility practice, a natural first step is to seek out opportunities to volunteer for your state or local bar. Many bars rely on volunteers to staff their ethics committees, teach ethics CLEs, and even serve on disciplinary panels. You should also consider becoming a member of the ABA’s Center for Professional Responsibility, which is devoted to the study of ethics, and is filled with ethics counsel, bar counsel, academics and respondents counsel, who have made legal ethics their life. A rewarding career as a lawyer’s lawyer may be just around the corner.

About the Author

Amber A. Hollister is the Oregon State Bar’s general counsel, and a frequent speaker and writer on legal ethics issues. Contact her on Twitter @oregonethics.

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