Bar Association finishes ethics rules overhaul

Wednesday, February 6, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- The Enron case, with its allegations of shady financial deals and accounting cover-ups, could reopen a contentious issue for lawyers -- whether they have a greater duty to protect a client or to prevent a crime.

The American Bar Association completed work Tuesday overhauling the code of ethics for lawyers, a five-year effort that included emotional debates over lawyers' competing loyalties.

The ABA's legislature turned back one attempt to reconsider one of the most contentious ethics rules, dealing with when a lawyer may breach a client's confidence in order to save lives.

The ABA then went on to endorse the broad package of rules governing everything from the promises lawyers make to clients to procedures for selling a law firm.

The Enron debacle, however, may force the ABA to reconsider the most hotly debated revision in the ethics rules. The ABA dropped a proposal last year that would have made it easier for lawyers to tattle on clients involved in shady financial deals, including accounting flimflams.

"In light of recent events ... going on in the financial area," the ABA may reopen that issue when its policy-making House of Delegates next meets in August, said E. Norman Veasey, chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court and a leader of the ABA committee that drafted the proposed rules.

In an interview, Veasey declined to link that prediction specifically to Enron, but the reference was clear.

"In the current environment there is every reason that would come up in the future," Veasey said. "There is some feeling that the House made a mistake."

The ABA ethics rules are not law, but are often the basis for state laws and policies on lawyer conduct. In the case of the rule on reporting financial crimes, 41 states have gone further than the ABA is recommending.

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