How Best to Deal with State Bar Disciplinary Matters – Part 3
Part 1 of this series discussed the initial response to a Bar complaint, and Part 2 covered what to expect if the complaint is assigned to the Investigative Panel. In Part 3, let’s look at ways to minimize the chances of receiving a Bar complaint by learning from other attorneys’ experiences and mistakes.
As attorneys, we’ve certainly made mistakes. A quick review of Bar complaint filing volume from the 2011-2012 Georgia OGC Annual Report shows that 3,584 clients contacted the State Bar and 2,105 actually filed complaints. The Georgia Bar does a great job of screening and disposing of frivolous complaints by disgruntled clients (and opposing counsel), but about 20% of complaints are not dismissed.
Part 3 – Why clients file State Bar complaints.
Understanding why Bar complaints are filed can help us avoid them. I talked to members of the OGC Office staff who monitor grievance communications, and also drew upon my own experience defending lawyers facing Bar complaints, to create a partial list of situations that resulted in clients filing Bar complaints. Some of these may seem humorous, but all should be taken seriously as they can have a major impact on your reputation and law practice.
Situations that resulted in clients filing state bar complaints
- My former attorney will not return my file to me. (I wrote about this one.)
- My attorney will not return my phone calls. I always get the paralegal.
- My attorney represented my partner and me when we started the business. Then he represented by partner against me when our business dissolved.
- My attorney’s paralegal gave me the wrong advice.
- My attorney settled my case without my authority / for too little money.
- My attorney represented my ex-spouse a few years back in a similar matter.
- My attorney did not tell me that there was a potential conflict of interest or advise me to get an independent professional opinion.
- My attorney charged me too much for the work performed.
- The opposing counsel threatened to report me to the IRS if I did not resolve the matter.
- My attorney disclosed confidential information to the media which caused the business deal to fail.
- My attorney made advances to me during a time when I was emotionally vulnerable / owed him a lot of money.
- My attorney told me that he could negotiate that Medicare lien to zero.
- My attorney compromised my case just to avoid trial.
- My attorney prepared the contract which later became the focus of the litigation, and then told me that he could represent me in the litigation too!
- The attorney allowed an improper notary / forged a signature on case critical documents.
Once you are done chuckling and asking yourself whether things like these really happen, think back to your own unique experiences. As the saying goes, perception is reality – and perception is what sometimes guides client decisions. Have you acted in a similar fashion at one point in time, or could a client have misperceived your actions? You probably provided an explanation, corrected the problem, improved a relationship, or even disengaged from the client. Imagine if you had instead received a Bar complaint.
With this knowledge you can improve your internal processes to ensure clients won’t even perceive that these activities are occurring. Think about ways you can improve communication, better document client procedures, promptly return files, and regularly train your staff to help prevent client misperception. Then you can ask me to lunch to share your war story, rather than asking me to represent you.
Part 4 of this series will cover what to do when a Bar complaint goes public – the Office of General Counsel files a Formal Complaint with the GA Supreme Court.