The Professional and Personal Impacts of a Bar Discipline Case

 In Georgia State Bar Grievances

Everything is going along smoothly at your law firm. Your clients are generally happy, and new clients are contacting you for help with their legal matters. If you could only please that one difficult client – the one who never seems to be satisfied with progress or results – everything would be perfect. Then you get the notice. That client filed a Bar Complaint.

How could my client be so vindictive?

depressionReceiving a Bar Complaint is usually a very emotional experience. It hurts when someone is directly challenging your competence, and essentially calling you an unethical lawyer. In fact, the stress of the disciplinary process has forced some of my clients to seek counseling for depression. Now you’re in the crosshairs, and everything you’ve done for the complaining client is subject to review. Most or all of the allegations may not even be true, but created for drama or leverage.

The Bar Complaint process has the ability to impact all aspects of your business as well as your personal life, including your future as a licensed attorney. Don’t succumb to the process and allow it to bring you down. But don’t ignore it either,

This situation will happen to many of us during our legal careers. With information more readily available these days, the number of complaints and allegations of wrongdoing are prolific. There are no specific statistics that I know of, but after my Bar grievance work with hundreds of Georgia attorneys, I would estimate that:

  • About 80% of claims are legitimate to some extent, including misunderstandings and miscommunications. The lawyer made some sort of mistake (like not documenting the fact of a client’s difficult nature).
  • About 20% of claims are twisted distortions of facts, clearly made up out of spite or for leverage – often financial. The lawyer made no mistake, other than the decision to take on that particular client, but the client wants to try to create issues to gain some sort of perceived advantage.

It’s time to act like a lawyer, just not your own lawyer

Take a few minutes to get over your anger, engage counsel, report the matter to your insurance carrier, and then get back to work. If your client was in trouble, what would you recommend? That’s probably your best plan of attack here as well:

  • Don’t ignore the situation. The Bar Complaint won’t go away, and will likely get worse if you pretend it doesn’t exist. Notify your liability insurance carrier if applicable to trigger your disciplinary defense coverage.
  • Get counsel. Find objective counsel with experience in the process.. Just like you tell your clients, it’s foolish to represent yourself.
  • Respond quickly and effectively. Respect the deadlines and (with counsel) craft a specific response aligned with what the State Bar expects to see.
  • Learn from your mistakes. Regardless of the claim’s validity, realize that you may have done something to get into this situation, and adjust your business practices accordingly to better protect yourself and your firm in the future.

Treat every client complaint as a learning experience

Even if the Bar Complaint was completely meritless – filed by a manipulative client just trying to avoid paying your fees – there are still lessons to be learned. For example, should that client representation have even been undertaken? You may need to modify your intake or client management processes. Here are some ideas:

  • Conduct initial interviews directly with prospective clients. Face to face is best.
  • Identify the motivation for hiring you. Is the reason a valid one? Red flags like anger or questionable motivation may be deflected toward you later.
  • Trust your gut, not your bank account. While you may make a few dollars in the short term, defending yourself may cost thousands later in defense costs and lost time. Know when to say no, and when to pull the plug, documenting the disengagement.
  • Admit your mistakes. No matter how hard you work for your clients, you cannot please every single one of them. If a client alleges you made a mistake, get advice, own the mistake if you made one, fix it, and move on.

At the end of the tunnel, sometimes even those completely baseless Bar Complaints make us better lawyers. They can be a wake-up call, snapping us out of complacency, helping us refocus on best practices, and encouraging us to enhance the processes we use to engage, manage, and disengage from clients. Use every situation as an opportunity to learn and improve, thereby minimizing your chances of landing in the same situation again in the future.

Douglas Chandler

Here are some additional articles about avoiding and dealing with Bar Complaints:
How to Deal with State Bar Disciplinary Matters
How to Avoid Problems in the Modern Day Law Practice
How to Choose the Right Client

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