The legal profession is a complex world and a NJ attorney must function in several capacities. He is not just a representative for his clients; he is also an officer of the legal system as well as a public citizen which carries the specific responsibility of protecting and preserving justice. The Rules of Professional Conduct are set into place to help a lawyer define his actions in each of these different roles. The lawyer must function as a representative for clientele but also must remember that they are an officer serving the legal system. As an acting public citizen, the lawyer is constantly seeking to improve the law and administer justice while continuing to provide quality service which is required of the legal profession. The Rules of Professional Conduct were developed in order to help define the legal responsibilities of the attorney and to create a consistent code of legal ethics.
The terminology used throughout the RPC is important and the way certain sections are worded is worth noting. Some of the rules are very clear and use the terms “shall not” and “shall.” These are specifically used to define conduct that must be exhibited by legal professionals. These are matter of fact and non-negotiable. Lawyers who function outside these guidelines may face professional disciplinary actions. In sections which use the term “may” or “may not,” the lawyer will retain his own discretion regarding his actions which should be carried out according to his personal professional judgment. In these types of cases, there should be no disciplinary actions taken should a lawyer decide to act within or without what is lined out in the rules. The Rules of Professional Conduct are in one part obligatory and in another way they are disciplinary. But more than that, they are descriptive such that they define the role of the attorney.
What course of action occurs when a lawyer is in violation of the RPC? It is worth noting that in some cases a violation does not necessarily indicate that any action against the lawyer is in order. In some instances, there may be non-disciplinary actions that are appropriate. The rules are more of a scaffolding to help give guidelines to regulate conduct but are not necessary for use solely by disciplinary agencies. The RPC are not designed for use as a basis for civil liability. When the rules are used for procedural weaponry, they are completely weakened and undermined in every way. The RPC provides a structural form that lawyers may use them for self-assessment. The RPC are set in place so that attorneys can have a uniform standard of conduct. When there is a violation of one of the rules, it represents a breach in the standard.
Laws in an open society are dependent on understanding the intent of the rules followed by voluntary compliance. Reinforcement occurs through both peer and public opinions and they are enforced when absolutely necessary through disciplinary proceedings. The Rules of Professional Conduct are not the only set of moral and ethical considerations which should be adhered to by lawyers, but they do provide a structural framework within which the ethical practice of the law should perform. One note that is very important when looking at the obligations of an attorney is the client-attorney relationship. If there is no professional relationship established, there is no way for the RPC to be violated. A lawyer is only obligated to a client after the client requests their professional services, and the lawyer has accepted the responsibility. Once the two have discussed and agreed upon the terms, then the lawyer is responsible for acting inside the scope of the RPC.