California Bar Journal
OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF THE STATE BAR OF CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 2000
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California Bar Journal

The State Bar of California


REGULARS

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Front Page - January 2000
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News Briefs
Former Unruh aide appointed to serve on State Bar board
Ardaiz, O'Leary named jurists of the year for '99
Judicial Administration fellowships
Public law section online library
Board meets Feb. 4-5
51.2 percent pass July '99 bar exam
Board hires search firm for new bar chief
Litigation section offers MCLE week in legal London
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Trials Digest
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From the President - Reciprocity reform: The future is now
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Opinion
For most Americans, our system is a failure
Ethics 2000: On target, or lost in space
Letters to the Editor
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Public Comment
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MCLE Self-Study
Of Counsel: Avoiding Conflicts
Self-Assessment Test
MCLE Calendar of Events
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Important Information About Your 2000 Membership Fee
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You Need to Know
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Appointments
Apply to serve on a bar committee
Bar seeks applicants for ABA delegates
Judge evaluation positions open
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Discipline
Ethics Byte - Warding off the foul tort in a new year
Bankruptcy attorney disbarred after abandoning clients
Attorney Discipline

OPINION

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Ethics 2000: On target, or lost in space
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By DAVID M.M. BELL
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The Big Picture: Our galaxy appears to be headed towards the unknown “Great Attractor” behind the constellation Hydra at over 1.3 million miles per hour. That’s fast! 

David M.M. BellThe Little Picture: Our legal profession appears to be headed towards the “Great Attractor” (the “Big 5” accounting firms) faster than the speed of reason. That’s worrisome!

Earth is a speck flying through space. Our species is a recent development. Our legal profession is more recent still. In America, our profession is not steeped in rich, unbending tradition, because in reality, it has not been around that long. In California, our State Bar, California Code of Professional Conduct and unauthorized practice of law statutes are all less than 100 years old. Our oldest professional responsibility rules, current Bus. & Prof. Code 6068, subsections (a)-(h), were enacted in 1872 (these sections can be traced back to the Geneva Oath).   

My small points here are that the practice of law, the legal profession and rules of professional conduct are all of relatively recent origin, and that they continue to evolve rapidly.

Today, the profession’s so-called “traditional core values” are being challenged as never before. For example, the ABA is currently studying “multidisciplinary practices” in which lawyers and nonlawyers would be permitted to form partnerships to practice law and to share legal fees. At the same time, the ABA Ethics 2000 Commission is in the midst of a major revision to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Core values are being modified. Current rule amendment drafts would significantly loosen the duty to maintain confidential client information, thereby affording less client protection.

In California, our professional rules have been amended substantially over the past decade and can be expected to be amended again. Regard-ing recent California practice developments, consider new Califor-nia web site FreeAdvice.com, which attempts to provide general legal assistance to consumers without engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. Consider the inroads into legal practice being made by the big accounting firms in California.

How to tell the legal department has too much time on their handsAs we move into the next millennium, the legal profession should keep perspective as it considers the lawyer’s role in modern society. What is a lawyer’s purpose today? Is this purpose consistent with our traditional core values of independent professional judgment, conflict-free representation and maintenance of client confidence and secrets? Remember, these core values are of relatively recent vintage themselves. Are they worth holding on to in the modern world? Can they be harmonized with evolving practice, with evolving technology? What happens to our adversarial system of justice if they are weakened or lost?

The recent evolution of legal practice and legal ethics has much to do with lawyers wanting to provide more efficient and complete service to consumers, to be more relevant and useful. These are laudable objectives. But I also sense that the current evolution is about lawyers striving as business people, want-ing to make more money, wanting to compete with other professionals, including accountants, for power and status. Should our professional core values be relaxed to accommodate these objectives?  

In the big picture, we are just beginning to develop our profession of law. Although change is inevitable, the direction of change is not. I believe that each of us, as lawyers, has the power and the responsibility to affect the profession’s direction of change by speaking out for what we believe in — what our legal practice and professional values should be.

I, for one, fear that if we jettison our core values too quickly, without substantial thought, we may become a profession lost in space.

Ethics expert David M.M. Bell, now in private practice, may be reached at dmbell@dnai.com.