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Legal Ethics: A Beginner’s Guide

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This post is coauthored by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer, legal reference specialists.

Everyone has a favorite lawyer joke. Robert encountered his favorite in the waiting room of a law office. Sitting on a table was a book titled, “Lawyer’s Book of Ethics.” It was blank. Notwithstanding this perception, the reality is that law is a highly regulated profession. When lawyers pass the bar, they not only gain the privilege to practice law within a certain jurisdiction, they also incur the obligation to adhere to the Rules of Professional Conduct proscribed by that jurisdiction. If they fail to uphold this obligation, they can be punished in a variety of ways, including reprimand, suspension, and even disbarment. Whether you are a lawyer reviewing the rules regulating legal ethics in your jurisdiction or a member of the public searching for the rules that govern the attorney-client relationship, this Beginner’s Guide will provide you with a research pathway into the domain of legal ethics.

Abraham Lincoln while a traveling lawyer, taken in Danville, Illinois. Photographic print by Amon T. Joslin. (May 27, 1857). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
Abraham Lincoln while a traveling lawyer, taken in Danville, Illinois. Photographic print by Amon T. Joslin. (May 27, 1857). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,


The Law Library of Congress has quite a few resources that focus on legal ethics in the United States.  Please find a selection of these materials listed below.



Specific Areas

As we have suggested in previous Beginner’s Guides, many, if not all, of these resources can be found in a library near you by using the WorldCat catalog. When you select a resource from your search results list in WorldCat, scroll down to the “Find a copy in my library” section, enter your zip code (or city and country, for those not in the United States), and WorldCat will list the libraries closest to you that own that resource.  You can then click on the library’s name to be taken to the resource’s entry in that library’s catalog.

Rules of Professional Conduct

As you may note, many of the sources above reference the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, a copy of which can be found online. The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct are advisory, but compelling evidence of a lawyer’s ethical obligations. Jurisdictions may choose to adopt the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct in whole or in part. When adopted, the commentaries to the rules can prove very helpful, providing further explanation of the intent of those rules.

The rules of professional conduct for each state, which bind the lawyers licensed in that jurisdiction, are typically adopted by that state’s highest court and are enforced by that state’s bar association.  Typically, the rules of professional conduct are made available on the state bar association’s website, along with ethics opinions that inform lawyers on the application of the rules to specific facts. Many state bar associations also provide ethics hotlines that help will advise a lawyer of compliance strategies for a given situation. State bar association websites can also be invaluable for the non-lawyer, providing access to the rules that govern the lawyer-client relationship and to information on how to file a complaint if you feel a lawyer has failed to adhere to these rules. In addition, most state bar association websites provide public access to a lawyer’s disciplinary history for a given period of time.


In addition to each state’s bar association, there are several other organizations that provide information about ethics-related standards, rules, and statutes that apply to attorneys.  Some of these informational websites include:

We hope you found this guide useful. If there are any sources you would like to add, please feel free to comment below.

Comments (2)

  1. Could you also post those reference books in electronic format so that it could be accessed by visitors to LOC website? Than you.

  2. Hi Nick—These books are not currently available in a digital format on the Law Library of Congress website. If you would like to find copies of these books in a library near you, we suggest using the WorldCat catalog, as explained above. Good luck with your research!

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