California State Bar disciplinary actions are serious. They can result in private reprimands, sanctions, suspensions, and even disbarments. In 2016, over 15,000 bar complaints were filed in California. Out of the cases filed, formal charges were brought in 672 cases. However, the State Bar Court took action on 903 cases in total; 107 cases were closed with no action or with non-disciplinary action. The California Supreme Court received 796 recommendations for suspension or disbarment. Out of that number, 191 lawyers were disbarred and 202 were suspended.
California State Bar disciplinary actions are, indeed, very serious matters. If you receive one, it’s important that you understand the five factors that indicate how your career may be affected. Use these five factors to determine whether you should get help in responding to the complaint.
Factor 1: The Potential Consequences
As mentioned above, lawyers who are the subject of a California State Bar disciplinary action could have their case closed without any sort of investigation. Yet, an investigation could be opened and could result in a private reprimand, a sanction, suspension, or disbarment. If disbarment or suspension are brought up as a potential consequence, get assistance in your response.
If the consequences are manageable, you may be able to handle it on your own. The Playbook’s interactive website can guide you through every step of the discipline process.
Factor 2: The Identity of the Person Who Filed the Complaint Against You
The California State Bar takes the identity of the complaining witness under consideration when determining whether to open an investigation and what the possible consequences will be for you. Anyone can file a complaint. After all, the bar wants to protect the public. However, the bar will look at the complaining witness to determine if they’re credible. If the complaint is filed by a sitting judge, it’s more likely that you’ll face prosecution. If the complaining witness is a former or current client, the state bar will consider evidence from both the client and you.
Factor 3: Your Level of Emotional Involvement
California State Bar disciplinary complaints could cause you to act in a way that is defensive and emotional. Those feelings are natural. However, to draft a proper response you must be able to remain objective. If you attack the complaining witness or the state bar in your response, that will be used against you. Your response must be calm and effective. If you cannot write an effective response, consider hiring an ethics defense lawyer to help you.
It can take time for bar complaints to end. Keep in mind that you’re going to need to balance your every day responsibilities, too. Sometimes hiring a lawyer is an investment into your peace of mind so that you can continue to put your focus on providing legal expertise to your clients.
Factor 4: Previous Discipline History
If you have a previous history of discipline, you may find that the California State Bar is less inclined to negotiate with you. The consequences you’re facing are likely more serious. Lawyers with a previous discipline history should really consider hiring a lawyer to represent them during the entire process.
Factor 5: Cost
Money shouldn’t be your number one consideration when determining if you should hire a defense lawyer to help you with the California State Bar disciplinary action filed against you. If cost truly is a factor, many lawyers provide limited scope representation or consultations. Make sure that you do your research to know the cost before deciding that a defense lawyer is out of reach.
Remember, look at all five factors to decide whether it’s feasible for you to represent yourself or if you need the services of an experienced ethics defense attorney.
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!