Long time readers of this blog know that I have written many times about Model Rule 8.4(g) and that I have expressed concerns about its breadth and vulnerability to attack under First Amendment grounds. I wrote most of those comments when the rule was in the process of being enacted and adopted. Since then seven states have adopted some version of the rule and a few others are currently considering doing so. I have also had the chance to teach the rule and discuss the debate about it with my students every semester since it was proposed.
So I am glad to report that the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has published a formal opinion offering some guidance on how the rule should be interpreted and applied.
I will comment more in detail when I have a chance to read it, but I wanted to let you know that the opinion is now available so you can read it too. You can read it or download a copy of the opinion here.
Here is a copy of its summary:
This opinion offers guidance on the purpose, scope, and application of Model Rule 8.4(g). The Rule prohibits a lawyer from engaging in conduct related to the practice of law that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of various categories, including race, sex, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation. Whether conduct violates the Rule must be assessed using a standard of objective reasonableness, and only conduct that is found harmful will be grounds for discipline.
Rule 8.4(g) covers conduct related to the practice of law that occurs outside the representation of a client or beyond the confines of a courtroom. In addition, it is not restricted to conduct that is severe or pervasive, a standard utilized in the employment context. However, and as this opinion explains, conduct that violates paragraph (g) 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.
The Rule does not prevent a lawyer from freely expressing opinions and ideas on matters of public concern, nor does it limit a lawyer’s speech or conduct in settings unrelated to the practice of law. The fact that others may personally disagree with or be offended by a lawyer’s expression does not establish a violation. The Model Rules are rules of reason, and whether conduct violates Rule 8.4(g) must necessarily be judged, in context, from an objectively reasonable perspective.
Besides being advocates and counselors, lawyers also serve a broader public role. Lawyers “should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.” Discriminatory and harassing conduct, when engaged in by lawyers in connection with the practice of law, engenders skepticism and distrust of those charged with ensuring justice and fairness. Enforcement of Rule 8.4(g) is therefore critical to maintaining the public’s confidence in the impartiality of the legal system and its trust in the legal profession as a whole.