You’re starting to mature into your practice, I can see that. You’re discovering new documents in new places and you’re developing new feelings toward judges, juries, and jurisdictions. I see that you’ve also started to notice clients. Hey, I don’t blame you! Clients are the yin to the attorney’s yang, the Jack to your Diane, the peanut butter to your jelly. And let’s not beat around the bush: clients are noticing you, too! You’re filling out that suit nicely, you’ve managed to acquire a few favorable verdicts, and your name is spreading through the halls of the justice center faster than a rabbit fleeing a cheetah.
But slowdown. Stop thinking about notches on your trial bag for one second and remember that the attorney-client relationship is a serious one. The relationship must be approached with maturity. If you can’t talk about the attorney-client relationship, then you’re not ready for one because, if it’s mishandled, you could suffer serious repercussions. You could find yourself elbow-deep in an ethical mess, in which case you can kiss those Friday nights goodbye! What you need to do, really, is practice safe law.
Practicing safe law requires first and foremost that you take personal responsibility for your conduct and that you thoroughly understand Washington’s Rules of Professional Conduct. But when you find yourself in a jam — when being overworked and, perhaps, sleep-deprived has you inclined to make poor decisions with the clients you’re with — then the Washington State Bar Association offers a few resources to help.
- Ethics Line: I recommend that you save the WSBA Ethics Line (206-727-8284 or 800-945-WSBA, ext. 8284) on speed dial. The professional responsibility counsel who answer incoming calls provide confidential, informal guidance as to your own prospective ethical conduct. The Ethics Line also has a list of frequently asked questions with answers to a myriad of convoluted problems.
- Advisory Opinions: Advisory opinions can also provide guidance. The WSBA makes its opinions available online, complete with a helpful search function. The same opinions are also accessible using Casemaker, the research tool available free to WSBA members. Through its online database, you’ll find opinions on questions such as whether credit card transaction fees may be charged to the client, and ethical obligations arising from the use of third-party online data storage vendors. But take note: these opinions are advisory only. Washington’s Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
- Ethics-Based CLEs: Finally, it wouldn’t kill you to tone up your ethical prowess with a few additional ethics-based CLE courses. The WSBA requires that only six of your total 45 hours of approved CLE credits be ethics-based. But using the WSBA’s website, you can find many upcoming ethics CLE seminars on interesting topics as well as a full catalog of recorded products, both video and audio.
Of course, the best way to avoid ethical dilemmas is to not practice law at all. But I’m no curmudgeon and I won’t give you the advice given to me when I received my license, which was, “Trent, you can practice all the law you want, just not with clients.” Heck, you’ve got a license and I know you’re going to use it. Just use it safely. There can be nothing more satisfying than a safe, responsible attorney-client relationship.