• Print Page

Rules of Professional Conduct: Scope


[1] The Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules) are rules of reason. They should be interpreted with reference to the purposes of legal representation and of the law itself. Some of the Rules are imperatives, cast in the terms “shall” or “shall not.” These define proper conduct for purposes of professional discipline. Others, generally cast in the term “may,” are permissive and define areas under the Rules in which the lawyer has professional discretion. No disciplinary action should be taken when the lawyer chooses not to act or acts within the bounds of such discretion. Other Rules define the nature of relationships between the lawyer and others. The Rules are thus partly obligatory and disciplinary and partly constitutive and descriptive in that they define a lawyer’s professional role. Many of the Comments use the term “should.” Comments do not add obligations to the Rules but provide guidance for interpreting the Rules and practicing in compliance with them.

     [2] The Rules presuppose a larger legal context shaping the lawyer’s role. That context includes court rules and statutes relating to matters of licensure, laws defining specific obligations of lawyers, and substantive and procedural law in general. Compliance with the Rules, as with all law in an open society, depends primarily upon understanding and voluntary compliance, secondarily upon reinforcement by peer and public opinion, and finally, when necessary, upon enforcement through disciplinary proceedings. The Rules do not, however, exhaust the moral and ethical considerations that should inform a lawyer, for no worthwhile human activity can be completely defined by legal rules. The Rules simply provide a framework for the ethical practice of law.

     [3] Failure to comply with an obligation or prohibition imposed by a rule is a basis for invoking the disciplinary process. The Rule presuppose that disciplinary assessment of a lawyer’s conduct will be made on the basis of the facts and circumstances as they existed at the time of the conduct in question and in recognition of the fact that a lawyer often has to act upon uncertain or incomplete evidence of the situation. Moreover, the Rules presuppose that whether or not discipline should be imposed for a violation, and the severity of a sanction, depend on all the circumstances, such as the willfulness and seriousness of the violation, extenuating factors, and whether there have been previous violations.

     [4] Nothing in these Rules, the Comments associated with them, or this Scope section is intended to enlarge or restrict existing law regarding the liability of lawyers to others or the requirements that the testimony of expert witnesses or other modes of proof must be employed in determining the scope of a lawyer’s duty to others. Moreover, nothing in the Rules or associated Comments or this Scope section is intended to confer rights on an adversary of a lawyer to enforce the Rules in a proceeding other than a disciplinary proceeding. Some judicial decisions have considered the standard of conduct established in these Rules in determining the standard of care applicable in a proceeding other than a disciplinary proceeding. A tribunal presented with claims that the conduct of a lawyer appearing before that tribunal requires, for example, disqualification of the lawyer and/or the lawyer’s firm may take such action as seems appropriate in the circumstances, which may or may not involve disqualification.

     [5] In interpreting these Rules, the specific shall control the general in the sense that any rule that specifically addresses conduct shall control the disposition of matters and the outcome of such matters shall not turn upon the application of a more general rule that arguably also applies to the conduct in question. In a number of instances, there are specific Rules that address specific types of conduct. The Rule of interpretation expressed here is meant to make it clear that the general Rule does not supplant, amend, enlarge, or extend the specific rule. So, for instance, the general terms of Rule 1.3 are not intended to govern conflicts of interest, which are particularly discussed in Rules 1.7, 1.8, and 1.9. Thus, conduct that is proper under the specific conflicts Rules is not improper under the more general rule of Rule 1.3. Except where the principle of priority stated here is applicable, however, compliance with one rule does not generally excuse compliance with other Rules. Accordingly, once a lawyer has analyzed the ethical considerations under a given rule, the lawyer must generally extend the analysis to ensure compliance with all other applicable Rules.

     [6] The Comment accompanying each Rule explains and illustrates the meaning and purpose of the Rule. This note on Scope provides general orientation and general rules of interpretation. The Comments are intended as guides to interpretation, but the text of each Rule is controlling.