Can A Lawyer Help Me Break the Law?
Lawyers have an ethical obligation to represent a client zealously, and to provide legal advice to clients on a variety of matters, including the client’s ability to engage (or not to engage) in certain kinds of actions and behaviors. However, lawyers are not allowed to “help” a client break the law.
Let’s take a closer look at some things lawyers can–and cannot–do when it comes to actually or potentially illegal acts:
LAWYERS CAN TEST THE VALIDITY OF LAWS
A lawyer cannot advise a client to violate the law. However, if a lawyer has a good faith belief that a law or rule is invalid, the lawyer may be able to take steps to test or challenge that law in court (or before appropriate authorities).
LAWYERS CANNOT ADVISE A CLIENT TO BREAK THE LAW, BUT CAN GIVE “GOOD FAITH OPINIONS” ON THE LAW
California Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2.1 says:
“A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal, fraudulent, or a violation of any law, rule, or ruling of a tribunal.”
However, the rule goes on to state that a lawyer may:
- “discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client;” and
- “counsel or assist a client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning, or application of a law, rule, or ruling of a tribunal.”
This means that although a lawyer cannot help a client break the law, and cannot advise a client to break the law, a lawyer can:
- give the client a good-faith opinion about whether a proposed action (or inaction) or course of conduct is likely to break the law
- explain what the law (or a legal ruling) means, and the likely impact or result of the law or ruling on a client’s conduct or proposed conduct
- help the client find ways to obey the law
WHAT IF CALIFORNIA LAW CONFLICTS WITH THE LAW OF OTHER JURISDICTIONS?
In some cases, California law “disagrees” with U.S. federal laws (or the laws of other countries). In these cases:
- A California-licensed lawyer can give legal advice on how to comply with California law.
- A California-licensed lawyer cannot give legal advice on the law of any jurisdiction in which (s)he is not licensed.
- A California-licensed lawyer can give advice on compliance with California laws that conflict with laws in other places – as long as the advice does not include (a) advice on how to violate federal law or the law of other jurisdictions, or (b) assistance with violating the laws of jurisdictions other than California.
For example, if a product is legal to sell in California, but not in other U.S. states (or is illegal to sell under U.S. Federal law), the lawyer must expressly limit the scope of the attorney-client relationship to ensure:
- The lawyer does not advise on violation of federal or non-California law
- The lawyer limits his or her legal advice to compliance with California law
- The lawyer does advise the client on potential penalties for violation of U.S. federal law (but, again, cannot advise on the laws of states where the lawyer is not licensed)
- The lawyer complies with any statutes or ethical rules applicable to provision of advice to the client (and the lawyer’s practice generally)
Above all, a lawyer must provide honest, straightforward advice, and cannot take a “wink-wink” attitude toward compliance with the law. A lawyer cannot ignore illegal conduct or pretend “not to know” if it is clear that a client is seeking advice on how to break or circumvent the law. This is true even if the advice the lawyer has to give is not what the client wants to hear! Doing otherwise may subject the lawyer to discipline, or other legal consequences.
Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR OR ROSS LAW AND ANY PERSON. Your legal rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal rights or claims. Consult an experienced attorney promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, potential damages, and the various legal rights and options available to you.
You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Most legal claims (and defenses), as well as legal and court procedures, are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against someone who injured you, a lawyer who represented you in a previous lawsuit, or any other legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your individual rights and claims.