A Short Course for Understanding an Ethics Complaint

Ethics complaints filed against lawyers is not an uncommon occurrence. Most jurisdictions keep statistics on how many complaints are filed each year. If one is filed against you, you’ll likely be investigated. You’ll also face serious consequences such as a private reprimand, sanctions, suspension, or even disbarment. It’s important that you understand the ethics complaint and the proper way to respond.

Why Are Ethics Complaints Filed?

Ethics complaints may be filed for many reasons. Essentially, you’re being accused of violating jurisdictional rules in the course of practice. It can be filed by a current client, a former client, a judge, or even another lawyer. In addition to the allegation against you, the ethics committee will take the identity of the complainant into consideration.

How to Understand What an Ethics Complaint Says

Receiving an ethics complaint is an emotional process. You may feel angry because you’re being accused of violating the rules. You may feel hurt. You may feel worried. You may feel angry, hurt, and worried all at once. It’s easy to let how you feel take over. Yet, doing that is detrimental to your response; and before you can respond, you need to understand what the ethics complaint says.

You must be able to read the entire complaint while in an objective state of mind. Reading the entire complaint is the best way to figure out the crux of the matter. Remember, you expect your clients to read and understand the basic complaint and response of their legal matter. Most of your clients will have those same feelings of fear, anger, and uncertainty. If you’re unable to be objective, ask someone you know, preferably another attorney, to read it and explain it to you.

Should You Ignore It?

While there are many ethics complaints that go nowhere, there are plenty that are thoroughly investigated. Should you ignore it and hope it goes away? No. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. The investigator still has it on their case list. They’re still accountable to their superiors. They will not ignore it simply because you did not respond. Instead, they’ll move forward without your response. They’ll talk to the complaining witness, possibly issue a subpoena for your trust account records, pull court filings, and build the case against you. You could face an additional charge because the investigator may see your lack of response as failure to cooperate. That additional charge is brought separately.

Responding to an Ethics Complaint

The feelings you have related to receiving the ethics complaint are fairly normal of all attorneys involved in that sort of matter. Do not respond to the complaint in a way that’s angry or overly defensive. If you speak ill of the complainant, it’s likely that your angry response will be counted against you. Make sure that the response that you send is objective and calm, just like any other response you’ve filed in a legal matter for clients. If you cannot draft a reasonable response, you should enlist help.

Do not send every single document you have if the investigator requests “all correspondence” between you and the complainant. This will not convince the investigator to close the case because you’ve tried to drown them in paper. It will likely just irritate the matter. You could also end up violating attorney-client privilege. That would add to the arsenal of the investigator.

The Investigation May Last for Months

These investigations aren’t necessarily closed within a few days or weeks. Depending on the allegations, they can take months. During the time that the investigation is ongoing, you must continue to fulfill your obligations to your clients.

Get Help If Necessary

When we talk about help, we mean it in three ways. First, if the complaint is about something related to your practice, figure out what you need to do to resolve it. For example, if the complaint addresses diligence, make sure that you’re properly scheduling your matters and giving yourself enough time to complete tasks and meet deadlines. If it has to do with disorganization, get some help in organization. Second, if the complaint came about because of a substance abuse problem, seek out professional assistance. Talk to your personal doctor or call the help line with the bar. Attorneys have a higher risk of dependency. Third, depending on the seriousness of the investigation, you may need to get help with your defense. Zavieh Law provides both full and partial scope representation as well as consultations to help attorneys improve their practice. To learn more, schedule a consultation!

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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