OneJustice Blog

Bring life-changing legal help to Californians in need.

Avoiding ethical pitfalls in our sector

Toby Rothschild, a Board member and pro bono Of Counsel to OneJustice, shares valuable insight all nonprofit leaders should know.

Toby is a longtime partner in OneJustice’s efforts to strengthen the civil legal aid system and has been a member of the OneJustice board since 2000. He provides ethics trainings to our network organizations throughout the state. We asked Toby to tell us about his path to becoming an Ethics trainer in the legal services sector.

Please join us in welcoming Toby!


[Photo: Toby Rothschild, Of Counsel to OneJustice.]

Toby Rothschild, Of Counsel to OneJustice.

Thank you for joining us, Toby! Tell us what started your interest in legal ethics?

Shortly after I became Executive Director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach, I was faced with an ethical conflict. We were representing a client who was attempting to stop the demolition of some low income housing by the city. The president of my Board of Directors raised questions about the client’s eligibility and asked me to show him the intake information. I refused, and told him that I had verified that the client was eligible, and that he had not consented to sharing the information with the board. To avoid a standoff, we agreed to send a joint letter to the Ethics Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar and be bound by their decision. The Committee issued an opinion that made clear that the board was not entitled to confidential client information.

I maintained an interest in legal ethics after that, occasionally doing training for my staff and for other legal services attorneys. When LAFLB and LAFLA merged, I became General Counsel of LAFLA, and ethics advice and training became a major part of my job. I began offering monthly ethics training for LAFLA advocates, and soon began inviting all of the other LA area advocates to attend as well. In addition, I provided counselling on ethics issues for LAFLA and other advocates throughout the state.

When I retired from LAFLA about a year ago, I was looking for a way to continue to use the knowledge I had developed to assist legal services advocates and programs. I talked to OneJustice’s CEO Julia Wilson and we agreed that it would be useful to offer the training and consulting I had been doing through LAFLA as part of OneJustice’s programs.

What are the general topics you cover?

In some ways, ethics in legal services programs is no different than for any other lawyers. The same rules apply. On the other hand, the kinds of ethical issues that arise are often different. Legal services lawyers seldom face ethical problems with how to collect their fees, or how to sell their practice (for example, who would want to buy it?). The two primary ethics issues that do arise, conflicts of interest and confidentiality, come up in different contexts. So the training focuses on the particular issues like these that arise in a legal services setting.

In these trainings, we talk about the unique issues of representing nonprofit organizations, withdrawal from representation, whether you can give a client money for a meal or bus fare, and communication with clients, among other issues. There are many issues that arise in situations where the program is representing multiple clients in the same case. It might be several tenants suing a landlord for lack of maintenance, or several employees suing their employer for wage theft. There are several disclosures that have to be made to the clients in such cases to get their consent to continue representing all of them.

And how do organizations benefit from Ethics trainings and consulting?

Every lawyer needs to keep up to date with their ethics training. First, it is important to understand the rules of the road, so you can avoid ethical pitfalls. Second, ethical conundrums arise in every practice, and it very useful to have a place to go to get guidance on how to address the complexities of the rules and cases. And it is useful to have someone outside the organization to consult with, as there are some circumstances where consulting only with your colleagues can cause ethical problems by itself.

And third, every lawyer is required to obtain a number of hours of Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) on a regular basis. Several of these hours must be in legal ethics. It is much better to obtain the MCLE ethics hours in programs that focus on the unique needs of legal services attorneys. And California law requires paralegals to obtain regular ethics training as well, so we provide the training for paralegals. Particularly for confidentiality, we often include the entire staff, as it is critical for everyone to understand the obligations of a lawyer, and all who work for or with the lawyer, to “maintain inviolate the confidence, and at every peril to himself or herself to preserve the secrets, of his or her client.”

Thank you so much, Toby, for your guidance and leadership!


About Toby Rothschild: He recently retired after serving as the General Counsel of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) for 13 years. Prior to that, he was the executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach (LAFLB) for 28 years and Interim Executive Director of LAFLA. He graduated from UCLA School of Law in 1969, and has worked at legal aid programs since graduation. He has been the president of the Long Beach Bar Association and was Vice Chair of the California Commission on Access to Justice. Toby has served as a member of the State Bar Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct and as Chair of the Professional Responsibility and Ethics Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar. He also was liaison on access to justice issues to the first commission which drafted the proposed new California Rules of Professional Responsibility, and is a member of the newly appointed Rule Revision Commission. He currently serves as a member of the State Bar Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission and he’s been a member of the OneJustice board since 2000. He currently serves as pro bono Of Counsel to OneJustice.

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