The Watergate scandal of the early 1970s resulted in increased
attention to the regulation of the legal profession. Beyond public
outrage at efforts by President Nixon to coverup the break-in at the
headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, the American public
was also disturbed by the number of lawyers involved in the scandal.
Virtually all of the main actors in the scandal were lawyers. Some 29
lawyers were the subject of disciplinary proceedings as a result of
Traditionally states, as opposed to the federal
government, serve as the primary regulator of legal ethics in this
country. The majority of states have rules patterned after the American
Bar Association's (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct. This is a
set of guidelines that help states craft ethical rules for lawyers. The
American Bar Association is a voluntary professional organization with
400,000 members that assists lawyers and judges in their work and
promotes efforts to improve the legal system. Violations of a state's
rules of professional conduct can result in disbarment (suspension of a
lawyer's license to practice law).
One of the most important
ethical rules for lawyers is the right to keep attorney-client
communications confidential. Many believe it is necessary to allow
clients to talk openly with their attorneys and gain advice about how to
properly comply with the laws or form proper defenses and legal
strategies. However, during the Watergate scandal, it seemed that many
lawyers were aware of and even assisted in fraudulent activities and
tried to use confidentiality and their role as attorneys to escape
punishment. For example, two top attorneys involved were fully aware of
the plans for the break-in. If either one had reported the misconduct,
the nation likely would have been spared the Watergate scandal. But the
attorneys did not reveal their knowledge of the future crimes and
instead later used their status as lawyers to defend their actions. Many
people were frustrated by what they viewed as lawyers using the rules
of confidentiality and other rules of professional conduct to avoid
responsibility to society.
The legal profession responded to
Watergate in a few ways. New emphasis was placed on professional
responsibility courses in the law schools. For the first time, by the
late 1970s, every law school in the country offered a course on
professional responsibility. Bar examiners increasingly added
Professional Responsibility to those subjects tested on the bar exam,
tests required for a lawyer to get licenses in a particular state. The
American Bar Association, which had only a few years earlier adopted the
Model Code of Professional Responsibility, also embarked on a project
that would lead to the wholesale revision of the Code.
the federal government did not itself seek to regulate the legal
profession. Rather, reforms in the legal profession in response to
Watergate were led by the ABA, the state courts and the state bar
Questions to Consider
- As discussed above confidentiality is an important part of an
attorney-client relationship. Since Watergate most ethical rules allow
an attorney to reveal a client's confidences if they relate to a future
crime or a fraud but not a past crime. Furthermore, ethical rules
generally require a lawyer to remove herself from representing any
client who has tried to use the lawyer's services to assist in a crime
or fraud. Why would ethical rules make a distinction between confidences
based on whether they relate to future or past crime? Debate the wisdom
and effectiveness of such a rule.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of leaving ethical rules to state regulation rather than federal regulation?
- Talk to a local attorney or contact your state bar association to learn the applicable legal rules in your state. Refer to these Links of Interest.