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The Rules Governing The Conduct And Ethics Of New Jersey Attorneys

By: Attorney E. Elizabeth Sweetser

Have you ever wondered if anyone is keeping a watchful eye over the conduct and ethics of New Jersey’s 40,000 + lawyers? The answer is yes indeed. That’s the job of the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The dos and don’ts applicable to attorneys are set forth in the NJ Supreme Court’s Rules of Professional Conduct, known as the “RPCs.” A copy of the RPCs can be found on the New Jersey Judiciary website at http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/rules/apprpc.htm#x1dot0.

New Jersey attorneys are required to be thoroughly familiar with, uphold and conduct their practice in accordance with the RPCs. Lawyers must take continuing legal education courses in attorney conduct and ethics in order to maintain their professional licenses in good standing.

So, as a practical matter, how does the Supreme Court of New Jersey supervise and discipline more than 40,000 attorneys? There is a system in place that works well.

There are eighteen district ethics committees in this State with jurisdiction by county or region. Clients, other lawyers and judges are expected to file a “grievance” describing and providing proof of suspected attorney unethical conduct with the secretary of the district ethics committee located in the county or region where the attorney practices. These district ethics committees are staffed by volunteer lawyers and members of the public. If the grievance alleges facts about the conduct by a lawyer which, if proven, would be unethical, a volunteer lawyer is assigned to investigate that grievance. If the investigation reveals wrongdoing, then the district ethics committee files a complaint against the lawyer and there is a hearing, or in some cases, a negotiated resolution. If the attorney is found to have violated one or more of the RPCs, discipline is imposed, the severity of which is tailored to the severity of the wrongdoing. 

The statewide Office of Attorney Ethics [OAE] assists and manages the 18 district ethics committees and the OAE itself handles some of the most serious or complex complaints against attorneys.

There is an “Attorney Discipline” page on the NJ Judiciary website that describes the above process in detail. You can also download the ethics grievance form from that page. http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/oae/atty_disc/atty_disc.htm.

The RPCs address unethical conduct – i.e. serious wrongdoing by a lawyer. Fortunately, the vast majority of clients will never be subjected to attorney unethical conduct. The normal everyday kind of issue that might arise, such as inadequate communication or some misunderstanding, does not constitute unethical conduct and is best resolved via an open and honest discussion between client and lawyer. When, however, a client suspects attorney unethical conduct, there is a mechanism in place for the client to air his or her grievance to professionals who are familiar with the RPCs and who stand ready to prosecute a claim of unethical conduct where that claim is supported by the evidence.

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