Ethics Dunce: The Maryland State Bar Association

Do you know what legal ethics opinions are? Many lawyers don’t know, or barely pay attention to them, but the opinions are important. They are written when bar associations have to decide how to handle the gray areas of professional ethics, and believe me, there are more gray areas in legal ethics than the profession likes to admit. Some jurisdictions churn out lots of important and useful legal ethics opinions all year long; others barely bother with them. (Idaho simply stopped issuing such opinions decades ago.) Still, the LEOs, as they are called, are essential when one of the many legal ethics issues crop up that a jurisdiction’s rules themselves don’t cover.

Although bar associations do a terrible job making their legal ethics opinions’ availability known to the general public, LEOs have invaluable information to convey about how lawyers are ethically obligated to serve their clients. They are also essential if people like me are going to be able to remind Maryland’s lawyers about their ethical duties as part of continuing legal education seminars and expert opinions.

So why is it that Maryland, alone among the 51 U.S. jurisdictions, refuses to allow the public access to their legal ethics opinions? All right, neither does Arkansas, but nobody can read in ArkansasKIDDING!!! I’M KIDDING!

In order to find out what the Bar Association has decided regarding specific legal ethics conundrums, or whether the state has any position at all, one has to be a dues-paying member of the Maryland Bar. Never mind that Maryland lawyers, who, like most lawyers, often are subject to the ethics rules of other jurisdictions, can access neighboring bar association LEO’s with a couple of clicks on their computers. Never mind fairness or reciprocity.

Here’s how the question “Why do we hide our ethics opinions?” was answered by one Maryland lawyer online:

“Ethics opinions are MSBA work product: a benefit to members who pay their dues…An ethics opinion is a legal opinion about what it or is not permissible under the rules. If you want legal advice, pay for it. The “rules”, by the way, are published and are available to the public. As are the elements of negligence. Do you tell your clients for free how to prove their negligence cases?”

How’s that for a venal, snotty answer? In fact, there are no “hidden” laws or principles related to negligence, nor are the standards for what constitutes negligence and how it is proven in court only available for a fee. The legal ethics opinions, on the other hand, may be crucial to allowing non-lawyers  know when they are being victimized by unethical members of the Maryland bar. How convenient that the Bar hides these from the view of the group of citizens that have the most urgent need to know about them.

As for non-Maryland lawyers who have occasion to practice in the state, as many do, one would think that the Bar would want them to have ready access to a determination of how some aspects of legal ethics are treated differently in Maryland—or does the bar want foreign lawyers to breach the rules, even though Maryland clients may be harmed as a result?

And has the Maryland State Bar never heard of the term “professionalism”? Sure it has! You know, that concept that lawyers are dedicated to the public good, and practice law for the betterment of society, not purely for profit? I know that the Maryland Bar, as well as municipal and county  bars in the state, urge its members, in the spirit of professionalism, to provide a significant number of hours of pro bono work—to donate their time to represent the indigent. But they won’t make their legal ethics opinions available to these needy clients so they know when their lawyers are screwing up, because they are “work product” and the Bar refuses to divulge them without payment?

What sense does that make? Every other state bar association—except for Arkansas— has sensibly concluded that all lawyers, not just those in a particularly jurisdiction, should be able to examine and compare legal ethics opinions across the nation, and that they should be available to the public as well. They have concluded this because legal ethics is difficult and constantly evolving, and the more information and guidance there are for both lawyers and their clients, the better off everyone is.

The Maryland Bar has decided to make its ethics opinions  inaccessible, obscure and expensive, which means it doesn’t comprehend what legal ethics are for, why they are important, and how to use them.




Filed under Business & Commercial, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Law & Law Enforcement, Professions, U.S. Society, Workplace

9 responses to “Ethics Dunce: The Maryland State Bar Association

  1. Aren’t these Bar Association rule makers lawyers?

    Of course they will attempt to profit at other’s expense! This situation is what we have come to expect from our litigators in America, after all. Like anything, there are good ones, but society seems to think as a whole they are a bane on our existence. Aren’t most politicians also lawyers?

    For the lighter side:

    What do you call a bus load of lawyers going over a cliff with one seat empty?

    A crying shame.

    Why do scientists use lawyers in certain experiments?

    There are some things rats refuse to do.

    I got a million of ’em

    • Eternal Optometrist

      Hilarious. I wish you could follow me around all day listening to me try to talk people out of protracted litigation or giving advice that is directly contrary to my own economic self interest (at least in the short term sense).

  2. valkygrrl

    How’s that for a venal, snotty answer? In fact, there are no “hidden” laws or principles related to negligence, nor are the standards for what constitutes negligence and how it is proven in court only available for a fee.

    There’s been a problem with regulations that are potentially binding on everyone, not just lawyers not being freely available.

    Some people have been working on it.

  3. Chris marschner

    Judge Gorsuch alluded to this attitude during yesterday’s confirmation hearing when he spoke about the dilemma facing young lawyers. Basically he said these new lawyers were forced by the system to focus on moneymaking.

    • Boy, the Marshall’s sure missed THAT memo…

      • Chris marschner

        Gorsuch was questioned in an earlier writing in which he lamented that justice sometimes is unattainable to some because of high costs. He commented that decisions are often predicated using cost analysis to defend or be a plaintiff rather than what is equitable. He cited certain processes had to be carried out only by an admitted attorney such as tenant landlord contracts or simple organizational documents. He went on to say that young lawyers who enter into the profession to help low income people seek redress for a grievance had to make the economic choice of paying their educational debts or serving the public interest. He said each choice is a personal one and either choice was valid.
        Primarily, the gist of his comments was that the system sometimes promotes moneymaking over seeking justice which he found problematic.

  4. Spartan

    I’m a member of the MD bar but I still don’t have access because I haven’t bought a separate membership to the fraternity (I mean, “association”). Ridiculous.

    • Other Bill

      Keep saving your money, Sparty. Bar associations seem to be run by people who were heavy into student council in high school so they could be popular and run the prom. That and guys who wanted to be able to get their former associates appointed to the bench and be able to sell that fact to clients.

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