California Bar Journal
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Ethics hotline coming back to help resolve bar members' dilemmas
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before they develop."

The hotline eventually will be staffed during business hours by one attorney and five paralegals who serve as a research service, directing attorneys to resources that will enable them to resolve ethical issues themselves.

The staff does not provide legal advice, but refers callers to relevant rules and statutes, such as the California Rules of Professional Conduct, the State Bar Act portion of the Business & Professions Code, and case law and court opinions. All calls are confidential.

The fired lawyer wondering what to do with his client's file, for example, most likely will be referred to rule 3-700 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. The rule is clear: an attorney whose employment is terminated must return all client papers and property "whether the client has paid for them or not."

The rule also includes a lengthy discussion which can help when a situation is complicated or involves extenuating circumstances.

According to State Bar Executive Director Steven A. Nissen, the ethics hotline was used by more than 21,000 callers a year before it was shut down last June in the wake of former Gov. Pete Wilson's veto of the bar's annual fee bill.

When the bar petitioned the Supreme Court for emergency funds last year, it argued that the ethics hotline should be funded because it "prevents violations of the rules of professional conduct before they occur."

In ordering that $15.86 of the $173 be earmarked for the hotline, the court described it as a tool which "will save costs to the overall system and reduce delay in the processing of cases by avoiding the filing of additional complaints."

Ellen Peck, an ethics expert and former State Bar Court judge, says not one of the more than 1,200 attorneys whose case came before her in the discipline court had used the ethics hotline.

"In a substantial number of cases, the harm to clients could have been prevented had the lawyers obtained guidance on their ethical obligations," Peck says.

Operated by the bar's competence office, the ethics hotline began in 1983. A 1994 membership survey gave it the highest rating of any State Bar member service.

"The ethics hotline is member-responsive," says Bob Hawley, chief assistant general counsel. "Attorneys don't get advice, but they get what they need to find the answer using their own lawyering skills."

Before the June layoffs, the ethics hotline was staffed by an attorney with 10 years of experience in professional responsibility issues, and six paralegals who together possessed another 20 years of expertise in analyzing ethics issues. When it re-opens, the hotline will be streamlined and short one paralegal. But its goal will remain the same: to return all calls within 24 hours.

Emergency calls regarding life-threatening situations or immediate court appearances receive a faster response.

Inquiries run the gamut, from questions about maintaining client confidences to conflicts of interest to how long to maintain closed client files.

According to statistics provided to the Supreme Court, questions asked in 1997 included 2,938 about relations with clients and conflicts of interest; 1,587 concerning communications with clients, opposing counsel or parties, courts, witnesses and others; 1,637 about lawyer advertising; 1,324 about client confidences and secrets; and 1,463 about withdrawal or termination of employment. The most questions - 3,422 - involved fees and costs for professional services.

Half the callers have used the hotline previously and half are first-time users.

Because the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what constitutes unethical conduct, no information provided by the ethics hotline can bind the court in discipline matters. The "no advice" disclaimer provided on each call protects callers from mistakenly believing that talking to the ethics hotline insulates them from discipline.

In addition to operating the hotline, the competence office will resume some of its other activities, including updating Publication 250, a handbook containing professional responsibility regulations such as the State Bar Act and the Rules of Professional Conduct, and updating a compendium of ethics opinions.

In addition, its volunteer body, the Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (COPRAC) has continued to work without funding or staff on its advisory ethics opinions, and several are expected to be published soon.