The State Bar of California (and every state bar in existence) receives thousands upon thousands of complaints filed against lawyers in their jurisdiction each year. For lawyers now tasked with facing the legal ethics board, it’s a terrifying and often angering experience. Here are 5 tips to help you through.
Don’t Ignore the Letter Sent by the Legal Ethics Board
The letter you received explains why you’re now the focus on an investigation. While you may not believe that the complaint filed against you is valid, ignoring it will make the problem even more serious. The complaint won’t just go away because you refuse to deal with it. If you feel intimidated, read our post on how to handle it.
Choosing to ignore the legal ethics board could cause the prosecutor to believe that you’re failing to cooperate. Failure to cooperate is a separate charge from the one brought before the board. Even if the legal ethics committee ultimately drops the investigation against you, you’ll still have to deal with the failure to cooperate charge.
Keep Calm and Draft an Appropriate Response
Ethics complaints are upsetting. You’re being accused of violating the standards of professional conduct for lawyers in your jurisdiction. Sure, it could be dropped. You could also be privately reprimanded, ordered to pay a pine, be suspended, or be disbarred. Could you survive being suspended or disbarred?
Knowing that your ability to practice law could be permanently taken away, it’s understandable that there are strong, often negative, emotions involved. Reading the complaint from the legal ethics board can be upsetting. Remember that you’d advise your own clients to not respond to anything from the opposing party in their case out of anger.
An angry response will be seen as defensive by the state bar. This is not what you need or want. You need to keep the same cool, calm head for your own response as you would when you’re drafting a response for a client. If you can’t, find an ethics defense lawyer to help you. You may not think that you need full scope representation, and that’s fine. Many legal ethics defense lawyers offer guidance or partial representation options as well. You may find that a consultation is well worth the expense so that you can plan an appropriate response.
Only Send Appropriate Documentation
Now is not the time to try to dump as much paperwork on the investigator in the hopes that you’ll overwhelm them. Doing so could mean that the legal ethics board considers your entire client file as responsive. They will still go through everything. They will likely be irritated by what you’ve done. They will not close your file just because you try to drown them in paper.
Sending your entire client file can also cause a secondary problem that could lead to the board believing that you’re not competent. You could violate attorney-client privilege. Take the time to read through the entire complaint and to respond accordingly. If you’re not sure what you should send, talk with a legal ethics defense attorney.
Contact Your Malpractice Insurance Carrier
If you haven’t done so already, you need to inform your malpractice insurance carrier about the letter. Look at your policy and determine whether your coverage provides a lawyer for you in these situations.
Get More Information about Legal Ethics Board Complaints
If you received a letter from the legal ethics board, it’s important that you consider the long-term effects on your practice. Check out The Playbook and learn more about your options.
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!