The Texas Bar Journal publishes a list of disciplinary actions each month. The May 2020 edition has over a dozen instances regarding attorney disciplinary actions, including judicial actions, disbarments, suspensions, and public reprimands. Anyone searching for an attorney can access information about the attorney on the Texas Bar Association’s website.
The Texas Government Code §81.115 requires that an attorney licensed to practice in Texas has a public profile. The profile includes basic information about the attorney, including the firm size, law school attended, year graduated, and any specialties. The profile also includes the attorney’s public disciplinary history for Texas and other states.
The information for disciplinary sanctions is only available online for the past ten years. If someone needs disciplinary or sanction information beyond ten years, the person must contact the Texas Chief Disciplinary Counsel.
Rules Governing Professional Conduct of Lawyers
Ethics is a set of rules and codes that regulate the conduct of attorneys. The American Bar Association has drafted Model Rules of Professional Responsibility as a guide for ethical conduct by attorneys. However, each state is responsible for drafting and passing a set of codes and rules of professional conduct for attorneys licensed to practice within the state.
The code of conduct covers numerous concepts and areas related to the practice of law. Some of the topics covered in a code of conduct include, but are not limited to:
- Professional judgment;
- Conflicts of interests;
- Disclosure of relevant information;
- Zealous representation;
- Competence; and,
- Fiduciary duty.
Code of Ethics for Attorneys Practicing in Texas
When individuals pass the Texas bar and are admitted to practice law in Texas, those lawyers take an oath to obey the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct and the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure.
The Texas lawyer’s Creed describes how a lawyer should conduct business within the legal system. It also directs that a lawyer should use all appropriate legal means to protect and advance a client’s best interest. The Creed also describes a lawyer’s duties for conduct with other lawyers and judges.
Reasons an Attorney May be Disciplined
Attorney misconduct may result in a variety of actions, including disbarment and suspension. Common reasons why a court may discipline a lawyer include:
- Willful violation of a court order;
- Theft of client funds or property;
- Crimes of moral turpitude;
- Failure to pay bar dues;
- Failing to maintain continuing legal education requirements;
- Personal misconduct that reflects negatively on the attorney’s character, honesty, or integrity;
- Failing to provide adequate communication with clients; and,
- Breach a client’s confidence and trust.
An attorney may face disciplinary action for conduct that is legal but unethical.
What is a Fiduciary Duty?
One of the essential elements of a lawyer’s duty to clients is the fiduciary duty. A fiduciary is someone whom another party has placed the utmost trust to handle a matter or protect money or property. A fiduciary has a duty to act in the best interest of the beneficiary.
The fiduciary relationship is created when the client hires the attorney, and the attorney agrees to represent the client. The attorney has several duties when acting as a fiduciary for the client.
For example, an attorney’s duty of loyalty to the client prevents the attorney from taking any actions that are adverse to the client. Lawyers should not profit or gain material benefit from a third party in connection with the attorney’s representation of the client.
A lawyer also owes a client a duty of confidentiality. An attorney should not disclose or use information the attorney learns while representing a client for any other purpose than representing the client. A duty to maintain confidentiality goes beyond the attorney-client privilege.
The duty of confidentiality prevents a lawyer from using any information for the lawyer’s benefit. It also prevents the lawyer from disclosure information, either for the lawyer’s benefit or the benefit of a third party.
Lawyers Also Owe Clients a Duty to Exercise Reasonable Care
An attorney cannot guarantee a specific outcome in a case. The attorney gives a legal opinion based on the attorney’s experience and the attorney’s interpretation of the law. That legal opinion is not a promise of an outcome.
However, the attorney does have a duty to exercise reasonable care throughout the representation of a client. The attorney should take all reasonable measures and steps to achieve the outcome the client desires.
Examples of failing to exercise reasonable care include, but are not limited to:
- Failing to research case law adequately and apply statutes correctly;
- Failing to perform an adequate investigation and discovery;
- Failing to monitor deadlines; and,
- Failing to obtain a client’s consent.
If a lawyer fails to exercise reasonable care or fulfill any of the other duties required by the attorney-client relationship, a client may have a civil claim against the attorney for legal malpractice.