Vol. 84, No. 6, June 2011
What ethics opinions are. The State Bar’s Standing Committee on Professional Ethics issues ethics opinions at the written request of a State Bar member or at the committee’s own initiative. Pursuant to article 3, section 4 of the State Bar bylaws, the committee is prohibited from issuing opinions on the past or present conduct of a specific member, which means that the committee can only issue an opinion that addresses the requestor’s own prospective conduct. Further, the committee must keep confidential the identity of requesting members. Generally, opinions issued on the committee’s own initiative address fairly broad and unsettled questions about the rules, while those issued in response to the request of a specific member tend to be more narrowly focused.
Timothy J. Pierce, U.W. 1992, is State Bar of Wisconsin ethics counsel, Madison.
Dean R. Dietrich, Marquette 1977, Ruder Ware, Wausau, chairs the State Bar Professional Ethics Committee.
Opinions are advisory only but do carry weight. The opinions reflect the judgment of the committee on the question posed and often are considered by the committee at several meetings (the committee meets five times per year) and often are the product of thorough research and many drafts. Consequently, opinions often take many months from the date of the request to issue. Since these opinions are advisory, as are the opinions of the ethics committees of most states and the ABA, they are not binding on courts or disciplinary agencies. They do, however, carry considerable weight, as evidenced by the fact that opinions are referenced for guidance in the Wisconsin Comments to Supreme Court Rules (see SCR 20:1.5 and SCR 20:1.16), and Wisconsin lawyers routinely look to ethics opinions for guidance. The Office of Lawyer Regulation also often considers ethics opinions when evaluating the propriety of lawyers’ conduct.
Memorandum Opinions. To expand the services provided to State Bar members, the committee issues memorandum opinions. Memorandum opinions are very brief written responses to fairly straightforward questions, generally limiting memorandum opinions to no more than one or two short paragraphs. The committee normally provides written responses to requests for memorandum opinions within 20 days of receiving the request, providing members with a much faster turnaround time than with formal opinions. With the brief format and turnaround time, memorandum opinions are only suitable for simple, straightforward questions, but the committee hopes these will be helpful to members with simple questions who seek written guidance. As with formal opinions, memorandum opinions are limited to addressing the requestor’s own prospective conduct.
How to request an ethics opinion. Members who desire an ethics opinion should address requests to: State Bar Professional Ethics Committee, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158. Or contact attorney Tim Pierce, State Bar ethics consultant, on the ethics hotline – (800) 728-7788, ext. 6168, or (608) 250-6168, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more ethics information, visit www.wisbar.org/ethics.