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In the post-Enron, post-WorldCom world, any “how-to” on the subject of beginning a career in a law firm would be incomplete without some attention being given to legal ethics. There are plenty of law school courses, books and scholarly articles on the subject. Undoubtedly, over the course of a legal career, you will be exposed to lots of interesting ethical issues. In the first year or two, though, there are two ethical propositions that should be especially kept in mind: confidentiality and conflicts of interest. Confidentiality Quite likely, the matter of confidentiality was, or will be, covered in your law firm’s orientation for new lawyers. The concept is easy to understand: Don’t share information about any client’s business with anyone outside the firm. The law firm owes each client a duty of confidentiality and can be taken to task for breaching that obligation. Even the fact that the firm represents a client is confidential. Be conscious of this obligation all day, every day. Don’t talk about any client’s business in an elevator. Don’t talk about it at lunch, at dinner or in a bar. Don’t talk about a client’s business with your spouse or a trusted friend. You get the picture. If you err on this one, it can mean serious trouble for you and your law firm. Take every precaution to keep clients’ business absolutely confidential. Conflicts Conflicts of interest arise mostly in connection with a firm’s taking on a new representation. Since new lawyers don’t generally start out as big-time rainmakers, they generally don’t face many issues of conflict of interest. Conflicts do occasionally come up, though, even for a new lawyer. Perhaps the most likely instance is when a young lawyer does a favor for a friend or relative-looking over a contract, or helping with loan papers, starting a new business, etc. Whenever you offer to help someone in a way that even approaches the status of legal representation or advice, be mindful that you could be creating a prohibited conflict of interest for your law firm. Even though you’re only one young lawyer, you are deemed to represent all of your firm’s clients. If one of them happens to be on the other side of a friend or relative who you volunteer to help, a troublesome potential conflict of interest arises. Before you volunteer to advise or otherwise help a friend or relative with a matter that’s even remotely legal, think about the potential conflict of interest. If there is a party that’s adverse to the friend or relative, initiate your firm’s conflict-of-interest procedure in the same manner as if you had been invited to represent a new client. With any luck, the search will not reveal any conflict and you’ll be free to help. If lightning strikes and there would have been a conflict, you’ll have saved yourself, at the very least, some embarrassment-or, at most, your job. Seek out sage advice When in doubt about any ethical matter, don’t try to handle it by yourself. Take it to your mentor, your practice group leader, the firm’s assigned eithical-issues partner or some experienced attorney whom you know, and talk it over. Don’t simply hope to make the right call alone or that it will never come up. Such issues arise in everyone’s practice, including conflicts questions, attorney-client privilege issues, correspondence (including e-mail) mistakenly delivered to the wrong person (i.e., an adverse party), conversations unintentionally overheard, timekeeping matters, etc. A good indicator as to whether an ethical issue has arisen is your conscience. If you’re troubled or worried about whether you’re doing the right thing or whether a problem has arisen, there’s a good indication that you may, in fact, have a problem. It’s then that you should stop what you’re doing and talk it over with someone. If there’s an issue, it’s not just your issue, it’s the firm’s concern, too. Talking it over with another, more experienced lawyer helps get to the right answer. It also “shares” the problem in a way that’s beneficial to both you and the firm. Call out for assistance when you need it. It may help; it can’t hurt. Jonathan W. Lowe is a partner at Atlanta’s Alston & Bird, where he practices in the areas of corporate health care and technology and serves as the firm’s professional personnel partner.

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