Legalese — Obligations of Attorneys

by Lori duff

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Everyone knows, to some extent, that when you need something legal done, you ask a lawyer for help. But what is a lawyer required to do to help you? Most people are aware of the ‘attorney-client privilege.’  This basically means that what happens in your lawyer’s office stays in your lawyer’s office. There are a few minor exceptions to this rule (for example, you can’t say “I’m going to go home and murder my wife – see here, I’ve got the rope and the duct tape and the Smith & Wesson all loaded up…..” and expect your lawyer to just wave and say, “Ok, now!  Have a good day!”) But what else is a lawyer supposed to do?

Title 15 of the Georgia Code addresses “Courts.”  Chapter 19 of Title 15 addresses “Lawyers.”  And Section 4 of Chapter 19 of Title 15 (O.C.G.A. 15-19-4) talks about the different duties an attorney has.  There are six duties, according to this code section.

  1. Lawyers have to “maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers.” This means that they have to dress appropriately, speak politely, and generally maintain decorum and respect the orders of the court, even if they think the judge is way out of line.  (Judges have their own things they are supposed to do, but that’s a column for another day.)
  2. Lawyers can only use such tactics “as are consistent with truth and never to seek to mislead the judges and juries by any artifice or false statement of the law.” In English, this means that lawyers can’t lie to the court or mislead in the court in any way.  This also means that if they know the law says they are wrong, they can’t argue that it says they are right.  This law is probably broken more often than the others.
  3. Lawyers are required to “maintain inviolate the confidence and, at every peril to themselves, to preserve the secrets of their clients.”* In other words, they have to keep their clients’ secrets a secret, even if it damages the lawyer to keep it a secret.
  4. Lawyers must “abstain from all offensive personalities and to advance no fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party or a witness unless required by the justice of the cause with which they are charged.” This means, essentially, that lawyers can’t be jerks, and shouldn’t go on smear campaigns unless they have to in order to seek justice.  (I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that the law stating that lawyers can’t have “offensive personalities” has been broken a time or two.)
  5. A lawyer shouldn’t start litigation, or continue it “from any motives of passion or interest.” This is a statement that lawyers should involve conflicts of interest, including passionate feelings on the part of the lawyer. Although we all love to champion causes about which we are passionate, passionate feelings can often cloud our judgment, and it’s important that a lawyer in the case remains cool and rational.  (And, of course, without “offensive personality,” a phrase which I am going to try to work into conversation until my family begs me to stop.)
  6. And last, but certainly not least, is an aspirational goal. Lawyers should never reject “for a consideration personal to themselves, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.”   The phrase “for a consideration personal to themselves” means, in plain English, “If you’re not getting anything out of it for yourself.”  I read this as saying, even if you aren’t getting paid, you should still try to represent someone who is otherwise defenseless or being oppressed in some way.  It is a call to pro bono (for free) representation of the poor and needy.

So, the next time you need to talk to a lawyer, even in a social setting, just for fun, check and see how they measure up to their obligations!

*I just love the flowery language in these old laws. This one was first written in 1863, and last edited in 1933.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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