By Leah Weaver
Nobody sets out to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct. We all do our best to pursue our clients’ cases diligently, keep our clients informed, avoid conflicts of interest, and keep our trust accounts in good order. But despite all your best practices, you may still find yourself the subject of a complaint to the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility.
Anyone with knowledge of an attorney’s misconduct can file a complaint. Siama Chaudhary, Assistant Director of the OLPR, told me that while most of the complaints are filed by clients, the Office also receives complaints from the public, other attorneys, and even a few from judges. The majority of client complaints involve criminal defense and family law matters.
Of course, Rule 8.3 of Professional Conduct requires attorneys to report other attorneys’ rule violations that call into question their honesty or fitness as a lawyer. While this can be difficult to do, as complaints are not anonymous, Chaudhary said it’s important to do so.
However, she said, complaints should not be filed vindictively. She said the Office sees a fair number of cross-complaints by opposing counsel in ongoing litigation, when the issues should actually be brought before the judge overseeing the case. “It happens more often than you’d think,” Chaudhary told me, calling those complaints “inappropriate.” “We can usually see through that. They should really be whining to the judge, instead of our office.”
So what happens when the Office receives a complaint? First, if they believe it has merit, it’s assigned to a district ethics committee for investigation. Following the committee’s investigation, the attorney has 14 days to respond, after which the complainant has a chance to reply. The committee then makes a discipline recommendation to the OLPR. In determining the appropriate discipline, the OLPR considers the nature of the misconduct; the cumulative weight of the disciplinary rule violations; and the potential harm to the public, to the legal profession, and to the administration of justice.
The most common discipline is a private admonition. “You have to do something pretty egregious to get publicly disciplined, especially if it’s your first time through the system,” Chaudhary said. Private admonitions can be appealed, in which case an evidentiary hearing is held before the Office’s board.
If public discipline is warranted, the Office files a petition with the Supreme Court, which appoints a referee to hear the matter. It then proceeds much like a civil bench trial, with discovery period beforehand. As in typical civil litigation, many cases settle, with the parties entering into a stipulation for appropriate discipline.
I’ve been the subject of a complaint, and I’ve filed a complaint against another attorney. Neither process was what I’d call fun, but the OLPR’s work is important. By holding attorneys to high standards, the OLPR protects the public and safeguards the administration of justice. And for that, we should be thankful.