How Best to Deal with State Bar Disciplinary Matters – Part 1
Responding to Bar Complaints.
Receiving a Bar complaint can be one of the most traumatic experiences in an attorney’s professional career. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about how to avoid Georgia State Bar complaints, but what do you do if you receive one? How you respond, and the type of assistance you seek, is absolutely critical in minimizing the disruption as well as disposition.
Here’s a quick summary of Bar complaint filing volume from the 2011-2012 OGC Annual Report. 3,584 clients contacted the State Bar, and of those 2,105 actually filed complaints. 1,733 grievances were dismissed, and 268 were reviewed for further investigation. While some are still in process, the results included everything from dismissal through confidential or public discipline.
Pursuant to the Bar’s procedural Rules, the 2,105 complaints were sent to the attorney for a response. Once the initial shock wears off, most attorneys tend to follow one of three paths:
- Do nothing. I’m going to ignore this [expletive] thing. There’s no merit.
- Spill their guts. I’ll overwhelm the Bar and the grievant by discussing every minute detail.
- Respond effectively. Keep reading below.
The Bar Complaint Response Process
Your initial response will not only improve your chances of a quick dismissal, but also minimize the possibility and severity of discipline should the complaint have merit. Using the appropriate format, tone, workflow, and advocacy can improve your chances of success and minimize the potential damage. After working with hundreds of attorneys through this process, here is the most effective way to react and respond:
- Get over it. This really did happen. Compartmentalize it and deal with it.
- Read it cover to cover. Most are only a few pages. Also review the client file to refresh your memory. I hope you kept a copy if the client requested their file back.
- Respect the deadline. In most cases, you have about 2 weeks to initially respond. You don’t want to get a phone call reminding you that you have missed a deadline.
- Draft your response. Try to link each complaint to the applicable Bar Rule and then respond based on that Rule. This is how the complaints are reviewed. Submit whatever supporting evidence you have, even unsigned drafts and notes.
- Contact your E&O carrier. Many carriers require you to report everything, and many also cover the cost of the attorney you choose. If your carrier does not provide cost of defense or indemnity for attorney’s fees, it is well worth including this type of coverage in your renewal discussion.
Always Seek Independent Advice
My good friend Warren Hinds often mentions Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Just like you tell your clients every day, you need an advocate – someone else responding on your behalf. Your advocate may be a peer who can offer neutral advice, or someone with specific experience in these matters along with established Bar relationships. It is also easier for the Bar to communicate with counsel rather than the accused.
Part 2 of this series will discuss what to expect if your complaint goes to the Investigative Panel, reinforcing the importance of an effective response during the initial review stage.