Ethical Obligations of Junior Attorneys

1. The Precarious Position of Junior Attorneys

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If you work with other lawyers in a firm, a legal department, or a government agency, you may at some time be asked to act in ways that violate the rules of professional responsibility, or you may become aware of violations committed by others. In such a situation, you may have to make difficult decisions. Predictably, you will feel considerable pressure, from above or below, to act as requested or to ignore the violation. If you refuse to follow wrongful orders or if you tolerate others’ misconduct, you may alienate your colleagues and even jeopardize your career.

At the same time, if you follow orders without question or ignore others’ misconduct, you may be subject to discipline. Although there are times when a junior lawyer can safely accede to a questionable request from a superior, the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct (Tex. Disciplinary R. Prof. Conduct (1989), reprinted in Tex. Gov’t Code Ann., tit. 2, subtit. G, app. (Vernon Supp. 1995) (State Bar Rules art. X §9) (hereafter “Rule(s) of Conduct”)) do not recognize a “Nuremberg defense.”

Rule 5.02 requires you (and every other lawyer) to conform your conduct to the Rules of Conduct, and Rule 8.03 requires any lawyer, senior or junior, who observes a violation committed by another lawyer “that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness,” to file a report with an “appropriate disciplinary authority.” Sometimes, even reporting a violation may not be enough. You may have to remedy the consequences of a violation, per Rule 5.01(b).

Even as a new lawyer, you cannot place blind faith in your superiors; you cannot turn a blind eye toward the misconduct of other lawyers and employees. The purpose of this article is to help you decide how to act in situations where you find yourself confronting a question of professional responsibility.