ABA Model Rules: The Laws Governing Lawyers

ABA model rules

Although the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct are not the actual black letter rules governing lawyers, they are the leader in calling law firms, lawyers, and anyone practicing legal services to the highest of ethical standards. Even though each state has its own rules of professional conduct, the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct have been the standard for ensuring the professional responsibility of the legal profession for quite some time.

The Rules have served as the model code as states have developed their legal ethics rules and encouraged professional ethics throughout the country. This article will explore a brief legislative history of the model rules and while outlining some of the most important principles of the ethical rules outlined in the Rules.

The Model Rules Created by the American Bar Association

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct began as the Canons of Professional Ethics in 1908, which changed to the Model Code of Professional Responsibility in 1969. This code was overseen by the ABA Commission on Evaluation of Professional Standards, which reviewed, edited, and adopted any rule changes for quite some time. In 1983, the ABA Commission presented the first draft of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to the American Bar Association House of Delegates, which adopted this version of the rules this same year.

Since they were adopted, the Model Rules have been evaluated, compared to global legal practice developments, and amended to ensure the highest integrity to the community, clients, and persons that the profession serves. These rules also outline how an attorney may receive discipline for breaking one of these rules and provide guidance for jurisdictions to adopt rules of professional conduct that mimic the responsibilities outlined in the Model Rules.

Every attorney who practices in the United States is required to take and pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, which tests the budding lawyer on the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and ethics. While these rules will not be the exact rules in the state, state rules are similar enough in many instances that states have deemed the MPRE to be an adequate test of the student’s ability to understand their ethical duties.

Additionally, the ABA House has adopted the Model Code of Judicial Conduct, which serves as the standard for judicial conduct and ethical rules that are special responsibilities required by such a prestigious and important position. Many of these rules are similar to the rules for attorneys but will have special considerations for the information and instances that a judge will deal with. However, this article will focus on the rules that apply to attorneys rather than judges.


Confidentiality is arguably one of the most important aspects of the Model Rules. To create trust between attorneys and their clients, there needs to be an understanding that anything they share with their attorney will not be shared publicly or with other people. For this reason, lawyers are not allowed to share details related to their representation of the client unless the client explicitly agrees that it can be shared or it is necessary to complete the representation of the client.

Additionally, the Model Rules carve out some very specific instances where a lawyer is allowed to break the confidentiality they share with their client without their permission. This includes instances where revealing certain information would stop bodily harm or death, the commission of a crime through the use of the lawyer’s services, or rectifying a crime that harms another through the use of the lawyer’s services. The Model Rules also allow attorneys to break confidentiality if they are in dispute with the client about the course of the representation or in a fee dispute. Finally, attorneys are allowed to seek guidance from other attorneys on the implications a situation may have on the ethics of the lawyer, including deciding if a conflict may exist.

The ABA Model Rules also impose a duty on attorneys to make a reasonable effort to not violate confidentiality inadvertently. This applies both to current clients and some former clients.

Conflicts of Interest

Another important part of the ABA Model Rules is that attorneys are not allowed to create conflicts of interest between clients. This means that law firms are not allowed to represent parties who are on opposing sides of the court case or who have adverse interests. This rule exists to ensure that attorneys provide legal services with zealous integrity and do not have to represent opposing viewpoints in the same case. It protects the clients from having an attorney that is also fighting for an opposing position.

The ethics mostly apply to current clients, but a lawyer cannot stop representing one client to represent an opposing client if they learned information from the former clients that could help or harm the case they are currently working on. A conflict can be waived in some cases by both clients, but it is not always waivable, so it is important to consult other attorneys at the firm or research ABA ethics opinions.


The ABA Model Rules also require that an attorney be competent to represent a client throughout the entire matter. While competency does include a thorough knowledge of the law to provide adequate representation, it also includes ensuring that the lawyer’s ability to do their job is not hindered by other substances that may get in the way.

Final Thoughts

The ABA Model Rules include many other requirements and duties that counsel must follow to ensure they are ethically sound. And while every individual state may have slight variations in its own ABA model rules, the foundational rules created by the ABA are the same across the country.  The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct maintain the integrity of the profession and the public trust in the legal system.

If you want to learn more about the ABA Model Rules or ethics in the legal system and more, contact ADR Times for educational resources and courses.

Emily Holland
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