Disbarment is the worst punishment an attorney can receive when they’re accused of violating the rules of professional conduct. Because facing an ethics committee can have serious consequences, lawyers must take time to consider whether it is wise to represent themselves. Megan recommends that lawyers look toward five specific considerations.
Be Realistic about the Severity of the Consequences
Disbarment is the most serious consequence. If you’re facing possible disbarment, do not try to represent yourself. You have to save your livelihood. Working with a lawyer who focuses on attorney ethics may very well be your best option.
However, if you’re facing a fine or another consequence other than disbarment, you may be able to handle it on your own. It is important to keep in mind that you should have a good understanding of what your state bar considers professional conduct.
Consider the Complainant
Much like you wouldn’t talk to a client using the same words that you would talk to another attorney about a matter, you must consider who filed the complaint against you. The identity of the complainant is often directly related to the consequences that you may face. An unhappy client would still be taken seriously, but mitigating circumstances may come into play. For instance, if your (former) client has a history of not paying their legal fees and files complaints on what seems like every lawyer they have contact with, their complaint may have less standing with the ethics committee.
Yet, if you have a complaint filed against you by a judge, the likelihood that you’ll be prosecuted and face serious consequences increase substantially. When a complaint is filed against you by a judge, you should get an attorney to represent you.
How Emotionally Involved Are You?
Facing an allegation of an ethics violation is never easy, but it can be extremely difficult for you to represent yourself if you’re emotionally involved. It doesn’t matter if the emotion is sadness, shock, or anger. It can cloud your judgment. Take the time needed to objectively consider your emotional involvement. You must be able to write effective responses and represent yourself well.
Former Disciplinary History
If you’ve faced disciplinary actions in the past, the likelihood that you could face disbarment or another serious consequence increases. Get legal help. Something you’re doing in your practice isn’t working as it should or you wouldn’t be facing the ethics committee again. Your state bar may not be as open to negotiations with you if you have a history.
Don’t Just Consider Cost
Keep in mind that the ethics committee looks at whether they believe your actions harmed the public and whether you violated professional conduct for lawyers. This process isn’t just about the money that you could spend in legal fees. It’s about the possibility of being disbarred and losing your earning ability.
Budget is often an issue. While looking to friends who are attorneys may be an option, you should also consider how much your friend knows about defense of these sorts of matters. Expertise matters. Another option is to consider limited scope representation to get the guidance you need to represent yourself. This method can be cost-effective and help you act pro se provided that you’re not facing extremely serious allegations.
If you’re ready to learn more about representing yourself, click here to access The Playbook. Written by Megan Zavieh, The Playbook is designed to help licensed California attorneys understand the entire disciplinary process.
If you’re curious about your options related to limited and full scope representation, click here to schedule a consultation with Zavieh Law.
If you receive an ethics complaint from the California Bar and you’re not sure where you should start, check out The State Bar Playbook. This is Megan’s interactive and easy to use guide (and community!) that will help guide you through the process from receipt of the complaint all the way through the appeals process!