California Legal Ethics Overhaul Brings State Closer to National Standards

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For the first time in almost 30 years, California has completed a large-scale revision of its Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers. The changes will align California's rules more closely with the rest of the country, but also contain some notable state-specific nuances.

After many years and an unsuccessful multi-year attempt that ended 2014, California has extensively revised its Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers, bringing them more closely in line with the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct (“Model Rules”), which have been adopted to some degree by every other state in the country.

On May 10, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued an order approving 69 new rules that will govern the state’s 250,000 licensed attorneys starting November 1, 2018. According to a press release from the California State Bar, this is the first large-scale revision to the state’s ethics rules in almost 30 years. A previous effort to revise the rules, which took roughly a decade, was ultimately rejected by the California Supreme Court in 2014.

The new rules include 27 that were approved as submitted by the State Bar, and 42 that were approved as modified by the court. And while the revisions more closely align the state’s legal ethics rules with the Model Rules, reports indicate that lawyers should still be aware of nuances that are unique to California.

One of the more notable state-specific changes adds stronger protections against harassment and discrimination in legal workplaces. Under Rule 8.4.1, lawyers will be required to “advocate corrective action” to address known instances of such conduct. The new rule also allows the State Bar to investigate claims of misconduct without triggering inquiries by government enforcement agencies, but lawyers disciplined for offenses of this nature will be required to self-report to those agencies.

The revisions will also implement a stricter rule pertaining to sexual relations with a client who is not the spouse or registered domestic partner of the lawyer. Rule 1.8.10 will prohibit such relationships in the absence of a consensual relationship that predates the representation.
News of the California rule updates comes as State Bar considers how to address the historically low pass rate for the February 2018 bar exam. The Bar also recently announced that licensed attorneys are now subject to re-fingerprinting requirements.

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