Ethics Complaints: 8 Must-Take Steps for Lawyers

There are thousands of ethics complaints filed against lawyers every year. In 2015, the State Bar of California received 15,796 new ethics complaints against lawyers. In 2016, the number dropped (but not by much). The State Bar of California reported 15,247 ethics complaints filed. If you practice in California, there’s a significant chance that you could face an ethics complaint at some point during your career.

Because of this increased chance, Zavieh Law put together 8 must-take steps for lawyers facing an ethics complaint.

Step 1: Don’t Ignore the Ethics Complaint

Regardless of whether you believe the complaint has merit, do not ignore it. You may not think there is any evidence that shows you should be investigated, but it is still the job of the ethics committee to investigate.

An ethics complaint will not go away if you choose to ignore it. The ethics committee has no desire to ignore it, though. The prosecuting attorney will review the complaint, collect evidence, and interview the complaining witness. Your trust account records could be subpoenaed. Meanwhile, the ethics complaint was ignored by you as the case against you is being built. Would you ever tell a client to ignore a letter from an attorney who made a serious allegation against them? Of course not.

Step 2: Read the Ethics Complaint

The first thing you need to do with the ethics complaint is to read it in its entirety. Make sure that you read it more than once. Then, read the complaint letter. Why? Because you may see different items listed in the complaint letter that aren’t listed in the actual complaint.

Step 3: Get (and Keep) Your Emotions in Check

You’re going to feel angry. You’re going to be upset. You must deal with your emotions from the very beginning. If you don’t they could blind you throughout the process.

Step 4: If You Have Malpractice Insurance, Notify Them

Read your malpractice insurance policy and then notify your insurance company about the ethics complaint.

Step 5: Read the Rules Related to Ethics Investigations in Your State

You should read and understand the rules related to ethics investigations in your state. Is the disciplinary process handled by a special court or is it handled by the state court? What can you expect out of the process? The rules for traditional litigation and ethical investigations are not the same.

Step 6: Plan Your Response and Keep Your Cool

Know when your response is due. Ask for extra time to respond if you need it. Because of the emotional toll that this matter will take on you, you likely will not be able to spend hours at a time working on your own response. You’re going to need that time.

Even if the client filed an ethics complaint against you because they misunderstood the scope of your representation, they embellished the situation, or flat out lied in their complaint, you must keep your cool. Remain objective and calm. Any angry or emotional response (especially one that attacks the complaining witness) could be used against you. Before you send your response, get someone else to read over it to ensure that you’re not coming off as angry and overly defensive.

Step 7: Send Only What the Investigator Needs

Some attorneys will attempt to drown the investigator in paper. Don’t do this. If you send your entire client file, the whole thing could be considered responsive by the investigator. A large file doesn’t prove your competency. The investigator will not drop the case just because you sent over a ton of paper. You could also forget to keep attorney-client privilege in mind and send over something that you shouldn’t. That could make your situation much worse.

Step 8: Consider Hiring a Defense Attorney

Some attorneys try to handle their own defense. As Megan Zavieh has explained, it can be difficult to handle your own defense because you’re emotionally involved. Since your practice is on the line, it’s important that you have an objective partner for your defense. You can look for an attorney who provides limited scope ethics defense representation or full scope representation. You also have the option of choosing a lawyer who doesn’t place the majority of their focus on defending colleagues accused in an ethics complaint.

In addition to helping with your defense, you can also have your response reviewed and talk to an ethics defense attorney about how the charge could affect your future practice and come up with a plan to change, if necessary.

Schedule Your Consultation with Zavieh Law

If you’re facing an ethics complaint, don’t ignore it. Read the letter and the complaint. Then, schedule your consultation with Zavieh Law. We provide both limited and full scope representation. Megan Zavieh is also the author of The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.

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!

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