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Is there some type of Code of (Personal) Conduct that lawyers in the United States must abide by under the penalty of either censure of disbarment? What personal kinds of personal misconduct might result in such penalties?

I am especially interested in rules of personal conduct for members of the Texas bar.

I have found lots of documentation regarding code(s) of professional ethics but not for personal ethics and behavior.

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    Bill Clinton was (temporarily) disbarred for his actions with Monica Lewisnsky, and after the affair. snopes.com/fact-check/…
    – RonJohn
    Apr 12, 2023 at 18:26
  • @RonJohn I did not know that. Thank you for your comment.
    – DDS
    Apr 12, 2023 at 19:23

2 Answers 2

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The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct govern the issue of the grounds upon which lawyers admitted to practice in Texas may receive professional discipline such as censures, suspension from practice, or disbarment. The appropriate severity of professional discipline for particular kinds of conduct is largely a matter of case law and separate law provides for the procedural framework for administering the Rules of Professional Conduct. The Rules themselves specifically disavow the task of decided what kind if professional discipline is appropriate for any particular kind of conduct of an attorney.

Personal ethics and behavior are governed primarily by rules 8.02 (defamatory speech about judges and other legal officials), and 8.04 (various kinds of misconduct including personal misconduct), although there are some stray bits that can come up in connection with other rules.

Rule 1.08 involves improper conduct in transactions with clients that do not pertain to the matter in which the client is represented (e.g. unfair business deals with clients). Texas is among a minority of states that does not automatically treat having sex with client that commences only after the attorney-client relationship is formed as a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Rule 8.04 is sometimes called the "officer and a gentleman" clause of attorney professional ethics after an analogous provision, Article 113, of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that applies to members of the United States armed forces. It is a residual misconduct provision that covers lots of misconduct in a lawyer's personal affairs that isn't otherwise regulated by the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Rule 8,04 and its official comments are as follows:

Rule 8.04. Misconduct

(a) A lawyer shall not:

(1) violate these rules, knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or do so through the acts of another, whether or not the violation occurred in the course of a client-lawyer relationship;

(2) commit a serious crime or commit any other criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyers honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects;

(3) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation;

(4) engage in conduct constituting obstruction of justice;

(5) state or imply an ability to influence improperly a government agency or official;

(6) knowingly assist a judge or judicial officer in conduct that is a violation of applicable rules of judicial conduct or other law;

(7) violate any disciplinary or disability order or judgment;

(8) fail to timely furnish to the Chief Disciplinary Counsels office or a district grievance committee a response or other information as required by the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure, unless he or she in good faith timely asserts a privilege or other legal ground for failure to do so;

(9) engage in conduct that constitutes barratry as defined by the law of this state;

(10) fail to comply with section 13.01 of the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure relating to notification of an attorneys cessation of practice;

(11) engage in the practice of law when the lawyer is on inactive status, except as permitted by section 81.053 of the Government Code and Article XIII of the State Bar Rules, or when the lawyers right to practice has been suspended or terminated, including, but not limited to, situations where a lawyer’s right to practice has been administratively suspended for failure to timely pay required fees or assessments or for failure to comply with Article XII of the State Bar Rules relating to Mandatory Continuing Legal Education; or

(12) violate any other laws of this state relating to the professional conduct of lawyers and to the practice of law.

(b) As used in subsection (a)(2) of this Rule, “serious crime” means barratry; any felony involving moral turpitude; any misdemeanor involving theft, embezzlement, or fraudulent or reckless misappropriation of money or other property; or any attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation of another to commit any of the foregoing crimes.

Comment:

  1. There are four principal sources of professional obligations for lawyers in Texas: these rules, the State Bar Act, the State Bar Rules, and the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure (TRDP). All lawyers are presumed to know the requirements of these sources. Rule 8.04(a)(1) provides a partial list of conduct that will subject a lawyer to discipline.

  2. Many kinds of illegal conduct reflect adversely on fitness to practice law. However, some kinds of offenses carry no such implication. Traditionally in this state, the distinction has been drawn in terms of those crimes subjecting a lawyer to compulsory discipline, criminal acts relevant to a lawyer’s fitness for the practice of law, and other offenses. Crimes subject to compulsory discipline are governed by TRDP, Part VIII. In addition, although a lawyer is personally answerable to the entire criminal law, a lawyer should be professionally answerable only for criminal acts that indicate a lack of those characteristics relevant to the lawyer’s fitness for the practice of law. A pattern of repeated criminal acts, even ones of minor significance when considered separately, can indicate indifference to legal obligations that legitimately could call a lawyer’s overall fitness to practice into question. See TRDP, Part VIII; Rule 8.04(a)(2).

  3. A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief, openly asserted, that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.02(c) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges to legal regulation of the practice of law.

  4. Lawyers holding public office assume legal responsibilities going beyond those of other citizens. A lawyer’s abuse of public office can suggest an inability to fulfill the professional role of attorney. The same is true of abuse of positions of private trust.

With respect to the portion of the question asking:

What personal kinds of personal misconduct might result in such penalties?

Some of the most serious violations of the rules that are likely to lead to disbarment include misappropriation of client property, abandonment of a legal practice with active clients, revealing highly prejudicial client confidences with no color of justification for doing so, committing a crime involving fraud or a felony, or failure to cooperate with a disciplinary investigation.

Of those, committing of a crime involving fraud or a felony would be the one most likely to result in disbarment that involves personal conduct, as opposed to professional conduct. Other kinds of personal conduct might result in a lesser sanction, however, as noted in Rule 8.4. Of course, it isn't all that hard to imagine some circumstance "involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation" (think "George Santos" absent any criminal conduct) that isn't strictly speaking a crime, or "conduct constituting obstruction of justice" in a matter unrelated to client matters (e.g. obstructing an investigation of a family member of the lawyer in connection with an academic institution's investigation) that could rise to this level as well.

But, again, the matching of punishment to particular conduct is rooted in case law. Also, a pattern of various kinds of misconduct or repeat offenses are often treatment more seriously than a single instance of misconduct by a first offender would be in isolation.

Incidentally, every U.S. jurisdiction has a set of Rules of Professional Conduct with the same numbering system, although the substantive content of different states' rules with the same number is not always the same.

So, for example, Rule 8.4 covers the same subject-matter in every U.S. state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and every other U.S. territory, even though there may be important substantive differences between the versions of Rule 8.4 adopted in different states.

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    Barratry here being bringing groundless suits, I assume? Rather than selling positions in a church (or, extremely unlikely, breach of a captain's duty to a ship's owner).
    – Dan
    Apr 11, 2023 at 18:16
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    @DanSheppard Not really, although the common law meaning overlapped with that. "Barratry, commonly known as “ambulance chasing,” is the practice of illegally soliciting clients who are in need of the services of a lawyer. Texas lawyers are prohibited from initiating personal contact with potential clients who have not invited such contact." texaslegalmalpractice.com/barratry-what-it-is-and-what-it-isnt See also texasbar.com/Content/NavigationMenu/ForLawyers/… (which focuses on aggressive legal marketing).
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 11, 2023 at 18:46
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    thanks! I'd only heard it in connection with purchasing benefices in the Church of England, which is why I had to look up what Texas might mean by the word!
    – Dan
    Apr 11, 2023 at 20:08
  • The majority of those appear to me to be professional misconduct, rather than personal. "misappropriation of client property, abandonment of a legal practice with active clients, revealing highly prejudicial client confidences with no color of justification for doing so" all seem to me to be professional misconduct -- the client as a client only exists in relationship to the professional they are the client of, after all. "Conviction of a crime involving fraud or a felony" seems more what the asker was going for, since it could be completely unrelated to their day-to-day. Apr 11, 2023 at 22:55
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    @MatthewRead Fair point. I've clarified my answer to reflect that issue.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 11, 2023 at 23:20
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All state bar associations have written ethical standards - personal and professional - for any attorney who has been admitted to practice, as well as disciplinary processes for enforcing those standards.

As for personal behavior, in Texas, the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct (pdf) state that (my bold)

  1. A lawyer's conduct should conform to the requirements of the law, both in professional service to clients and in the lawyer's business and personal affairs...

and

  1. Each lawyer's own conscience is the touchstone against which to test the extent to which his actions may rise above the disciplinary standards prescribed by these rules. The desire for the respect and confidence of the members of the profession and of the society which it serves provides the lawyer the incentive to attain the highest possible degree of ethical conduct. The possible loss of that respect and confidence is the ultimate sanction.

As well as the extensive Rule 8.04. Misconduct as pointed out by ohwilleke in his answer.

Ideally, in the interest of their profession, attorneys will police themselves. Any personal activity by an attorney that is clearly illegal (theft, DUI, etc.) is certainly an ethical problem under these rules; but behavior that is not clearly illegal but is possibly or clearly unethical (boorish behavior, money and billing issues, etc.) can also be a problem for the attorney.

The "bar" for disciplinary action and disbarment can be high, though. Many disciplinary committees are composed of attorneys themselves, and sometimes the committees can shy away from disciplining their own.

In Texas, members of the public can file a complaint with the Committee on Disciplinary Rules and Referenda and can watch How to File a Grievance.

In my own experience, simply threatening to file an ethics complaint against a city attorney for a very clear and ongoing ethical violation very quickly fixed the ethical problem.

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