An ethics complaint filed against you can create a lot of anxiety, fear, and anger. Will the bar decide to investigate? Will they punish you? Will they determine that the complaint lacks merit? The potential consequences range from a private reprimand all the way to disbarment. If you’re admitted to practice in more than one jurisdiction, you’re required to report any bar discipline to every jurisdiction in which you are admitted.
It can be hard to know what to do when you find out that you’re the subject of an ethics complaint. Here are 5 actionable tips to help you get through the process.
Read the Entire Complaint
Before you respond or make a plan to respond, read the entire complaint. You need to know and understand the contents so that you understand what allegations you’re facing, which rules you’re accused of violating, and the deadline to submit your response. Also, note the identity of the complainant.
Review the Rules
Look up each and every rule you’re accused of violating. Refresh yourself on its contents. If the complainant is a current or former client, pull their file and determine how or why they may have felt that you did not meet professional standards. Reviewing the rules and the client file can be helpful for constructing your response.
If you’re unsure about whether you may have violated the rules, get some clarification. Ask another lawyer or talk with an ethics defense lawyer. The purpose of getting clarification is to help you get into the right frame of mind to fix any potential problem that may exist within your practice.
Ethics complaints often feel like a personal attack. Its very presence feels less like an investigation and more like a direct attack on how you run your law practice. Feelings of anger, fear, frustration, and denial can cloud your judgment. It can impede your ability to draft a good response. Think about a client you worked with who came into your office while they were angry or scared because of a lawsuit they were involved in. Did they say things that you knew they didn’t mean? Did they act irrationally? Did you wait for them to calm down so that you could have better communication with them?
You must find a way to calm yourself so that you can be objective. Take a walk. Go for a run. Take a yoga class. Do whatever it is that helps you calm down and improve your focus. An angry response that attacks the complainant or the bar will do nothing other than perhaps give the bar further justification for their investigation.
Make an Action Plan
If you’ve talked to another lawyer about the investigation after you’ve reviewed the rules, it’s time to make an action plan to either improve or protect your law office from future allegations. Create a law practice management plan and follow it. Become a better steward of your time to make sure that you’re meeting all of your deadlines. Return all phone calls and emails within 48 business hours. Keep great documentation about everything you do. If you have a substance abuse problem, seek out help before it affects your ability to practice. Make sure that you (and your staff) follow all the rules in your jurisdiction related to advertising and social media.
Schedule a Consultation with an Ethics Defense Lawyer
If you receive an ethics complaint, schedule a consultation with an ethics defense lawyer. There are many factors that can affect the outcome of the investigation. Many ethics defense lawyers offer both limited-scope and full-scope representation. An ethics defense lawyer can help you understand the potential outcomes and explain how you may be able to mitigate the damage.
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!