What happens if a partner or supervisor at your law firm asks you to do something unethical? Can you carry out the requested task? Does the fact that your boss asked you to engage in the unethical behavior protect you from possible administrative sanctions? What happens if you don’t know that the request was unethical and do it anyway? Should or must you report the unethical request to an appropriate party? The decisions an attorney must make every day are often laced with ethical dilemmas. The choices you make after a superior asks you to do something unethical are no different.

The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct (“ORPC”) both speak directly to this issue. However, as with any other ethical issue, certain circumstances may make it difficult to arrive at one specific answer. Generally, an attorney is bound by applicable ethics rules “notwithstanding that the lawyer acted at the direction of another person.” So, if you work in a law firm and your supervisor directs you to engage in unethical behavior you are still responsible for your own actions. If you engage in the unethical behavior you may be guilty of breaching Ohio’s Rules of Professional Conduct.

However, there are circumstances in which a subordinate attorney may escape consequences for unethical actions. In Ohio, Rule 5.2 states that a subordinate attorney does not violate Professional Conduct if they act “in accordance with a supervisory lawyer’s reasonable resolution of a question of professional duty.” This means that if an issue arises that does not have a clear ethical course of action the superior attorney may make a judgment call about how to resolve it. ORPC Rule 5.2, Comment [1] provides an example of determining whether the interests of multiple clients conflict. There is no clear resolution based on current regulations. A supervisor’s “reasonable resolution” of this issue should prohibit you, the subordinate, from facing charges of unethical conduct. 

A subordinate may also escape the consequences for unethical actions if he or she did not have knowledge that the superior’s request was unethical. ORPC Rule 5.2, Comment [2] provides that if your superior asks you to file a frivolous pleading, you may not be guilty of an ethics violation if you did not know that the pleading was frivolous. Lack of knowledge of the unethical conduct can be considered as a factor when determining if you, the subordinate, are guilty of an ethics violation.

If you are a subordinate attorney who receives direction to engage in unethical conduct you may also be duty bound to report your superior’s misconduct. ORPC Rule 8.3 plainly states that an attorney who has unprivileged knowledge of an ethical violation “that raises a question as to any lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer…shall inform a disciplinary authority.” This is true regardless of whether reporting the superior’s ethical breach would also implicate yourself or another attorney.

The preamble of the ORPC makes it abundantly clear that the legal profession is vital to the maintenance, preservation, and well-being of society. Attorneys cannot contribute to the preservation of society if legal professionals are not held to an extremely high ethical standard. Ohio attorneys are, therefore, required to self-regulate the profession and hold others to a heightened standard. Failure to disclose another attorney’s unethical behavior, regardless of seniority in a law firm or court of law, is one’s own ethical failure in the eyes of the ORPC.

However, a takeaway from ORPC Rule 8.3 should be that the knowledge of the unethical behavior must be based on unprivileged information. If you learn of your superior attorney’s unethical conduct but cannot disclose such conduct without breaking privilege, you are generally prohibited from doing so. While the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct places a significant burden on attorneys to “self-regulate” and “self-govern” the profession, it also respects the sanctity of attorney-client privilege. Unless your client waives privilege in order to allow you to disclose this ethical violation you may not do so.

The choices you make after your superior asks you to do something unethical are important. If you have unprivileged knowledge of unethical behavior – including requests for you to engage in unethical behavior – you are duty bound to report it. Just because a partner at your firm asks you to do something does not generally reduce your responsibility to adhere to the code of ethics. There are exceptions to the general rule, but it is often best to proceed with caution and toe the ethical line.

About the Author: Adam Burke is a criminal attorney at Burke, Meis & Associates.

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