How to Respond to the Dreaded Complaint

No one wants to see a piece of mail from the California State Bar except at dues time (and let’s face it, we’re not all that happy to see the bill either, but at least it’s expected).  So what do you do when you receive a notice that someone has filed a complaint against you?  Bury it, unopened, in a pile of junk mail and hope it will go away?  No!

Douglas Chandler of Chandler Law LLC in Atlanta, Georgia, recently addressed this very question on his blog.  As he notes, “Receiving a Bar complaint can be one of the most traumatic experiences in an attorney’s professional career.”  He is absolutely right, and recognizing a complaint’s significance is important to handling it well.  If you pretend it’s not that important or fool yourself into thinking that the knot in your stomach is an overreaction, you probably will not handle it effectively.  Mr. Chandler lays out the possible responses to a complaint and their real consequences, along with his advice on what to do.

Once the initial shock wears off, most attorneys tend to follow one of three paths:

  1. Do nothing. I’m going to ignore this [expletive] thing. There’s no merit.
  2. Spill their guts. I’ll overwhelm the Bar and the grievant by discussing every minute detail.
  3. 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.

I agree with everything Mr. Chandler says here.  I often focus with my clients, particularly in the first discussion, on the emotional aspect of receiving that letter from the Bar.  As he says, get over it.  It happened.  It’s now on your plate, and you have to deal with it no matter how bogus you might think it is.  I also believe strongly that attorneys should seek help in responding to Bar complaints.  My practice is built on the notion that an attorney facing disciplinary charges can do a lot of the defense work themselves; I specifically offer a middle-ground service of support to self-represented respondent attorneys.  But, even though I believe that, I still think going it completely alone is a bad idea.  You need an independent evaluator to advise you on your case, on procedure and law, and to guide you through the process.  Having a knowledgeable sounding board can help keep you from spinning your own thoughts into a convoluted web of defensive and angry language that will get you nowhere in the litigation. 

Whatever you do, don’t do nothing. 

For more from Douglas Chandler, be sure to check out his website.

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