Ethics Help: A Phone Call Away

January 23, 2005

Submitted by Douglas J. Brocker

Not sure if you have a conflict? Don’t know if your new advertisement complies with all the new rules? Need to know what your obligations are if you leave your firm? Good news – help is only a phone call away. The North Carolina State Bar has an ethics hotline to answer these and most other ethical questions or dilemmas.

There are several important aspects about the ethics hotline:

  1. It’s free. Actually, it is one of the services included in your State Bar dues. Other voluntary organizations, such as the ABA, charge for this type of service even for members.
  2. It’s confidential. Generally, all discussions receive the same protection as other confidential communications under Rule 1.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules). 27 NCAC 1D .0103(b). The same protections apply to client confidences that need to be disclosed to seek advice. Even conduct of the attorney that violates the Rules will not be disclosed to the disciplinary department of the State Bar. The State Bar treats its internal records of informal ethics advisories as confidential and does not disclose this information internally unless the attorney consents or the advisory opinion is raised as a defense to a grievance.
  3. It’s reliable. Technically, the State Bar grievance department is not bound by an informal ethics advisory. 27 NCAC 1D .0101(12). As a practical matter, however, making an inquiry almost always prevents any disciplinary action against the attorney who received the advice. On numerous occasions, the grievance department has decided not to impose discipline, even when it did not agree with the advice given. As long as you are honest and provide complete information, it is the one of the best protections available against grievances. This is particularly true for advertising or marketing matters.
  4. It’s fast. Most inquiries can be answered by phone without a written request or opinion. If a question can be answered by the Rules, ethics opinions or requires urgent action, you can obtain an informal ethics advisory by phone. 27 NCAC 1D .0102(b).

There are some limitations to the ethics hotline, which cannot answer inquiries seeking opinions about the following matters:

  • The inquiring lawyer’s past conduct. 27 NCAC 1D .0102(b). Advice may be given, however, on the lawyer’s future obligations made necessary by his or her past conduct.
  • Another attorney’s past or future conduct. 27 NCAC 1D .0102(e). Those questions can only be addressed by the Ethics Committee and only after the other lawyer whose conduct is in question gets notice and an opportunity to respond. 27 NCAC 1D .0102(e).
  • Issues of law or legal procedure. 27 NCAC 1D .0102(g).
  • Any matter currently pending before a court or other tribunal. A common example would be a conflict question that is already before a court on a motion to disqualify. For obvious reasons, the State Bar cannot be a position of giving advice on an issue that may be contrary to the ruling of a court.

Inquiries that cannot be answered by an informal ethics advisory by phone or e-mail may be answered by one of three types of written responses. Ethics Advisories are the least formal and are issued to individual attorneys by members of the State Bar staff under the authority of the Ethics Committee. An attorney who acts consistent with such an advisory is deemed to have acted ethically and in good faith. 27 NCAC 1D .0103(e). Ethics Decisions and Formal Ethics Opinions both are promulgated by the Ethics Committee directly. Formal Opinions are published, while Ethics Decisions are not. All written forms of responses are public information.

Next time you are posed with an ethical dilemma, give the State Bar ethics hotline a call. Maybe next year it will make that annual dues check a little easier to write.