Lawyers who don’t live up to their ethical obligations can face discipline from a state board.
Lawyers are given a lot of responsibility and often deal with serious matters, from criminal charges to child custody to tax and other financial matters. When you hire a lawyer, you are trusting him or her to represent your interests in the best manner possible. To protect the public—and the integrity of the legal profession—each state has its own code of ethics that lawyers must follow. These are usually called the “rules of professional conduct.”
The American Bar Association publishes the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which lists standard ethical violations and best practices for lawyers. Some states have adopted the model rules as their own ethical rules, while others use it as a guide and modify or add rules. However, most states cover issues such as communicating with clients, charging fees, handling client funds, and avoiding conflicts of interest.
Common complaints by clients include:
- Failing to communicate with the client. Lawyers have a duty to keep their clients reasonably informed about the status of their cases, to respond promptly to requests for information, and to consult with their clients about important decisions in their cases (for example, whether to accept a settlement offer).
- Not returning the client’s documents. A client’s file is generally considered to be the property of the client. When a client fires a lawyer and asks for the file, the lawyer must promptly return it. In some states, such as California, the lawyer must return the file even if attorneys’ fees haven’t been paid in full.
- Lawyer incompetence. Lawyers must have the knowledge and experience to competently handle any case that they take on. They must also be sufficiently prepared to handle matters that come up in your case, from settlement negotiations to trial.
- Conflicts of interest. Lawyers owe a duty of loyalty to their clients, which means they must act with the client’s best interests in mind. This includes avoiding situations that would create a conflict of interest—such as representing two clients on opposite sides of the same case or taking on a new client who wants to sue an existing client.
- Financial matters. Misplacing or stealing client funds, refusing to hand over money owed to a client, or charging clearly excessive fees are all ethics violations. However, a simple dispute over how much you owe your lawyer in legal fees is generally not an ethics matter. Most of the time, these disputes are resolved through fee arbitration—an informal process where a neutral third party hears from both sides and makes a decision.
State Disciplinary Boards
Each state has a disciplinary board that enforces state ethics rules for lawyers. The board is usually an arm of the state’s supreme court and has authority to interpret ethics rules, investigate potential violations, conduct evidentiary hearings, and administer attorney discipline. Depending on the offense, the agency might:
- issue a private reprimand (usually a letter sent to the lawyer)
- issue a public reprimand (usually published in the agency’s official reports and a local legal journal or newspaper)
- suspend the lawyer (the lawyer cannot practice law for a specific time)
- disbar the lawyer (the lawyer loses his or her license to practice law), and/or
- order the lawyer to pay restitution—in the form of money—to the client.
Some state disciplinary boards have websites where you can search for a lawyer by name and see if the lawyer has a history of discipline.
Filing a Complaint
In most states, you can file your complaint by mailing in a state-issued complaint form or a letter with the lawyer’s name and contact information, your contact information, a description of the problem, and copies of relevant documents. In some states, you may be able to lodge your complaint over the phone or online.
Some states allow anonymous complaints if the problems impact the general public, while others don’t. Either way, it can be difficult for the agency to investigate a complaint without the cooperation of the complaining party. The board needs to gather evidence before disciplining an attorney, and in some cases, the only available evidence is the testimony of the complaining party. Or, the board might need to know the identity of the complaining party in order to investigate at all—for example, if a client alleges that the lawyer stole funds from a client account, the agency would need to know which client account to focus on.
In many cases, complaints come from the lawyer’s own clients. However, other attorneys and even judges sometimes file complaints against attorneys for improper behavior.
In most cases, a board of lawyers and non-lawyers will review the complaint. If there’s a potential ethical violation, the board will give the lawyer a copy of the complaint and an opportunity to respond.
In some states, the complaining party has a chance to comment on the lawyer’s response and request an investigation. If there’s no evidence of a violation, the board will dismiss the case and notify you. If the violation is minor, a phone call or letter to the lawyer usually ends the matter. For serious violations, the board will hold an evidentiary hearing.
The purpose of the state disciplinary board is to discipline lawyers, not necessarily to compensate wronged clients for their losses. If you’re looking for compensation, a malpractice lawsuit is generally the way to go. However, legal malpractice lawsuits can be very difficult to win. Among other things, you must show that your lawyer made a significant mistake in your case and that you suffered a monetary loss because of it. In other words, you must show that you would have won your case—or received more in compensation—had it not been for your lawyer’s mistake.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can an attorney represent both spouses in a divorce action?
- Is it an ethical violation if my attorney doesn’t tell me about settlement offers in my case?
- Can an attorney withhold attorneys’ fees from my settlement even if I contest some charges he billed me for?