How to Handle Ethical Challenges

By John Allison 

Lawyers often face ethical challenges.  They may be under pressure to maximize their legal fees.  The desire to win a case may tempt a lawyer to withhold evidence that should be disclosed to opposing counsel.  Some clients may expect their lawyer to do whatever is necessary to achieve the client’s goals, even if that means engaging in unethical behavior.


Practice law as an ethical professional.

To effectively handle ethical challenges such as these, a lawyer needs to go beyond literal compliance with the rules of professional responsibility.  The ethical rules do not cover every conceivable situation that might arise in the practice of law.  The language of some ethical rules can be interpreted in ways that are inconsistent with the intended purpose of the rule.  And, as lawyers well know, a violation of the ethical rules does not necessarily result in disciplinary action. 

Lawyers who go beyond literal compliance with the ethical rules take personal moral responsibility for their professional behavior.  They approach the practice of law as ethical professionals who value their reputation for honesty, integrity and credibility.  They give clients the benefit of their independent professional judgment, recognizing they are not merely legal technicians for hire.  As advocates in judicial proceedings they honor their role as officers of the court.  They represent clients wholeheartedly, but do so consistent with their personal ethical values. 


Be willing to say no.

If a client asks you to do something that seems unethical, try to persuade the client to take a different course.  Point out what can happen to the client if you do what the client asks.  Work with the client to find an alternative course of action that can achieve the client’s goals.  Resist the temptation to go along with the client’s request out of fear that you might otherwise lose the client.  

A number of examples can be found in reported decisions of lawyers who accommodated client demands by engaging in conduct such as hiding evidence, destroying evidence, backdating documents or helping clients engage in securities fraud.  Since reported decisions can easily be found online, the reputation of those lawyers will be damaged for a very long time.  Some also faced disciplinary action or criminal prosecution.  If a client insists that you engage in unethical behavior, it is time to withdraw.  No client is worth your reputation, your license to practice, or your freedom.    


Related articles:

Ethical Pitfalls Every Lawyer Should Watch Out For

How To Represent Your Firm's Clients Well

Building Trust In Professional Relationships

Dealing with a Client’s Feelings and Emotions

3 Keys to Effective Advocacy


John Allison is a professional career coach backed by years of experience as a successful lawyer. He is the founder of The Coach for Lawyers and author of The Art of Practicing Law: A Practical Guide for Lawyers.