ABA issues new guidance on lawyer misconduct

On the 15th July, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released guidance that expands on a model rule that covers a lawyer’s conduct related to harassment and discrimination.

ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 493 outlines how ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(g) addresses actions by a lawyer beyond the courtroom and the context of client representation. This could include operating an office or behaviour at bar association or other business and social events when they are related to the practice of law.

The rule makes it professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination based on various categories, including sex, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. The rule is broader than federal anti-discrimination laws because it also covers conduct that is not severe or pervasive, a standard often utilized for employment discrimination.

The formal opinion notes that most free speech is protected, but the rule is violated by harmful conduct, which “will often be intentional and typically targeted at a particular individual or group of individuals, such as directing a racist or sexist epithet towards others or engaging in unwelcome, nonconsensual physical conduct of a sexual nature.” It said the rule is “critical to maintaining the public’s confidence in the impartiality of the legal system and its trust in the legal profession as a whole.”

Read the formal opinion and the model rule,  or read the ABA’s statement on the new guidance. 

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California approves measures to advance equity in attorney discipline

At its July 16 meeting, the State Bar Board of Trustees approved a plan aimed at improving equity in the attorney discipline system, following up on the bar’s first-ever study on racial disparities in the disciplinary system. The first group of reforms aim to expand representation by counsel when an attorney faces a disciplinary investigation.

“The State Bar is moving forward with concrete, specific actions that we believe will not only target the disparities noted in Professor Farkas’s research, but also make the discipline system work better for everyone.” said Donna S. Hershkowitz, Interim Executive Director.

The study found that lack of representation by counsel during an investigation into an attorney by the State Bar was a statistically significant predictor of later discipline, the report also revealed that African American respondents were represented by counsel about half as frequently as other groups in the study.

The State Bar has said that they will:

  • Measure and report data on representation for attorneys in the discipline system;
  • Pilot-test messages informing respondent attorneys of the value of representation by counsel in disciplinary proceedings to evaluate the most effective method of encouraging representation; and
  • Work with the Association of Discipline Defense Counsel to develop and distribute a roster of attorneys who could provide low-cost and pro bono case evaluations to respondent attorneys.

Read the full report, or read the State Bar Association’s announcement about the changes.

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Racism in predictive justice, the issues with algorithmic policing

A new article by Will Douglas Heaven, senior AI editor at the MIT technology review has called for an end to the use of predictive policing and justice, powered by AI algorithms. The article looks at a number of ways that race feeds into AI algorithms, and how this can detriment minorities. The article suggests that current AI systems, when applied to justice, end up continuing to reinforce existing systemic racism, and potentially lead to an increased bias, as judgement formed by a supposedly objective system, then reinforces existing bias.

Heaven, therefore, suggests that until AI has been developed to the point where it can be genuinely objective, it should not be used in such an important decision-making capacity, particularly as discussions continue in the US and globally around racism and bias in the justice system.

Visit the MIT technology review to read the full argument.

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ABA launches new resource on racial justice

The American Bar Association has announced the launch of the ABA Racial Equity in the Justice System website. A central resource aimed at providing information to ABA members, attorneys, the profession and the public on issues such as addressing bias, racism and prejudice in the justice system and society. The website will include resources such as ABA policies and positions; articles from publications; statements from the ABA; model rules and standards; CLEs and webinars; toolkits and training; links to ABA diversity, equity and inclusion entities; resources addressing courts and access to justice, law enforcement, and related statements from other bar associations and affinity bars.

ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said “The American Bar Association is intensifying its efforts to ensure justice and fairness for all … For too long, African Americans have borne the brunt of racism through laws that unjustly and disproportionately impact people of color. Through efforts like this website, we want to make it easier for lawyers to access information and become more involved in reforming our laws and improving the justice system.”

Visit the ABA Racial Equity in the Justice System websiteSee the ABA news release.

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