Ethical Pitfalls Every Lawyer Should Watch Out For

By John Allison

Most lawyers take the rules of professional responsibility seriously and try to comply with them.  Yet, sometimes lawyers are so caught up in what they are doing that they lose sight of their ethical obligations.  This can happen when a lawyer’s self-interest is allowed to adversely affect a client, when a lawyer is overly zealous, or when a lawyer succumbs to questionable client demands.



Lawyers can be under considerable pressure to generate legal fees.  A lawyer might respond to that pressure by overstaffing a legal matter, by performing unnecessary work, or by delaying settlement of a lawsuit.  Engaging in those activities violates the ethical duty to charge a reasonable fee.     

A lawyer’s interest in representing a long standing client can lead the lawyer’s firm to compromise the ethical duties owed to a former client.  A lawyer’s desire to help a friend or family member can also create an ethical conflict of interest with a client of the lawyer’s firm.  In one reported decision, a lawyer helped his wife assert a claim that Apple was infringing on one of her company’s patents.  At the time, the lawyer was a partner in a firm that was representing Apple in various patent matters.


Excessive zeal. 

A desire to win can lead some lawyers to cross the ethical line.  A lawyer might try to mislead the court by mischaracterizing a relevant precedent.  The lawyer for a party in a civil case might assert frivolous objections in pretrial discovery in an effort to shield damaging information from disclosure.  The prosecutor in a criminal case might withhold exculpatory evidence from defense counsel in order to secure a conviction.  These ethical violations not only diminish a lawyer’s reputation, but they also interfere with the proper administration of justice and the parties’ right to a fair trial.  


Client demands. 

Some lawyers compromise their ethical responsibility in order to continue representing a client who wants to engage in questionable behavior.  Lawyers who help clients engage in unethical or illegal conduct are not serving the best interests of their clients, and they can find themselves in trouble of their own.  For example, a lawyer’s largest client ran into serious financial difficulty.  Attempting to help his client stay afloat, he participated in a massive accounting fraud that violated the federal securities laws.  The lawyer was ultimately convicted on several counts and sent to prison. 


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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.