Human Rights and the Model Rules of Professional Conduct: Intersection and Integration

32 Pages Posted: 22 Nov 2011 Last revised: 11 Dec 2011

See all articles by Martha F. Davis

Martha F. Davis

Northeastern University - School of Law

Date Written: November 22, 2011


The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct nowhere mention human rights as either a means or an end to ethical lawyering. The origins and history of the modern ABA Code, framed at a time when the ABA leadership was hostile to universal human rights norms, suggest possible explanations for this omission as an initial matter. But the Model Rules are frequently revised, and the ABA is now a leader in the promulgation and implementation of human rights worldwide. Still, the model ethics rules remain silent on human rights. State ethics codes, largely drawn from the ABA model, are also generally silent concerning the relevance of human rights to legal practice. In contrast, several legal ethics codes from foreign jurisdictions, including Canada, the European Union, and Japan, specifically reference key human rights concepts as a component of ethical law practice. In light of these models, this article undertakes an initial review of the ABA Model Rules to assess the potential for inclusion of human rights norms, and the impact that such revisions might have on legal practice. For example, adding the concept of “individual dignity” as an element of legal representation might shape the means of providing such representation, including the scope of the lawyer’s obligation to “keep a client reasonably informed” under Model Rule 1.4. Similarly, a simple revision such as adding human rights to the list of pro bono possibilities in Model Rule 6.1(b)1) would begin to posit the protection and implementation of human rights as an appropriate end of ethical lawyering. With lawyers’ commitment to basic human rights seriously questioned in some quarters, inclusion of human rights in the ABA’s Model Rules would underscore the profession’s commitment to upholding these legal norms.

Suggested Citation

Davis, Martha F., Human Rights and the Model Rules of Professional Conduct: Intersection and Integration (November 22, 2011). Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 157-186, Fall 2010, Available at SSRN:

Martha F. Davis (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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