Ethics opinions of the State Bar Professional Ethics Committee apply the Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys and the prior standards in the Code of Professional Responsibility to specific factual situations.
Ethics opinions are issued by the Committee at the written request of a member of the Bar or at the Committee’s own initiative. The Committee issues three types of advisory opinions; formal, informal, and memorandum.
All three types of ethics opinions and private chair letters are advisory only and thus carry equal weight. While doing its best to honor the format requested, the Committee reserves the right to determine the appropriate format for a response to a request for written guidance.
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About the Professional Ethics Committee
Pursuant to Article 3, Section 4 of the State Bar by-laws, 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 is required to keep the identity of requesting members confidential. 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.
Ethics opinions reflect the judgment of the Committee on the questions posed. Because 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 ethics opinions are referenced for guidance in the Wisconsin Comments to the Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys, and Wisconsin lawyers routinely look to ethics opinions for guidance. Although ethics opinions are advisory only and not binding on the Office of Lawyer Regulation, the OLR takes relevant ethics opinions into consideration when evaluating the propriety of lawyers' conduct.
The Search Opinions interface allows you to search all opinions that we have on file.
Formal opinions are issued in response to requests by State Bar members or on the Committees own initiative. Formal opinions generally address unsettled or complex questions, and thus are often considered by the Committee at several meetings (the Committee meets five times per year) and are often the product of thorough research and many drafts. Consequently, formal opinions often take many months from the date of the request to issue.
Before 1974, the State Bar commonly issued informal opinions, responding to inquiries from State Bar members about issues generally narrower than those addressed in formal opinions. The Committee has recently started issuing informal opinions again.
The Committee has begun again to issue memorandum opinions. Memorandum opinions, which were discontinued in 1978, are very brief written responses to fairly straightforward questions, and are usually no more than one or two short paragraphs. The Committee will provide written responses to requests for memorandum opinions within 20 days of the date of the request. With the brief format and turnaround time, memorandum opinions are only suitable for simple, straightforward questions.
In addition to formal, informal and memorandum opinions, the Committee will occasionally respond to requests for written guidance with private chair letters. Such letters are written responses provided only to the requesting lawyer and are used when the Committee believes that the facts and circumstances of the request warrant a non-public response.
Find opinions that have been withdrawn here.
Request an Ethics Opinion
To request an ethics opinion, or ask a question about ethics opinions, contact the State Bar’s Ethics Counsel, org tpierce wisbar Timothy Pierce at (608) 250-6168 or (800) 444-9404, ext. 6168, or Assistant Ethics Counsel, Aviva Kaiser at (608) 250-6158 or (800) 444-9404, ext. 6158.