Attorney discipline is a serious matter. It’s certainly not something to be ignored or to take lightly. If you’re notified by the state bar that you’re being investigated, you’ll likely have a lot of questions. One of those questions should be whether you need a lawyer who handles attorney discipline matters or if you can handle the matter on your own.
What Are the Potential Consequences?
The severity of the potential consequences is the number one indicator that determines whether you should at least consult with a lawyer who handles attorney discipline matters. If the possible consequences include a private reprimand or a fine, you could certainly consider handling the matter on your own provided that you can remain calm, understand the rules in your jurisdiction, and plan to provide the investigator only with the documents they’re asking for. Do not try to overwhelm them with paper while claiming that you’re being cooperative. This will not deter them. It may, in fact, give them ammunition to use against you.
More serious consequences, such as suspension or disbarment, can take away your livelihood. If you’re disbarred, you may no longer be able to work in the legal field. Many states do not allow disbarred lawyers to work in a capacity that would enable them to come into contact with law office clients. Some jurisdictions allow some amount of client contact, but won’t allow the lawyer to work in a capacity where what they’re doing could be considered practicing law. That would mean no legal advice, no filing documents, and no representing clients. With your ability to earn a living on the chopping block, it would be prudent to consider either partial-scope representation or full-scope representation. It’s also imperative that you learn everything you can about the process. If you’re in California, check out State Bar Playbook, Megan’s interactive guide that walks lawyers through the investigation process from your first notification through appeals.
Have You Previously Faced Attorney Discipline?
If you have a previous history of attorney discipline, you should at least speak with a lawyer. Having a history can make it more difficult to settle the matter. The ethics investigator will be less likely to cut you a break.
Consider How You Feel and Whether You Can Be Objective
When you find out that you’re under investigation, you’ll feel outrage. You’ll feel fear. You may not even believe that this is happening to you. Any and all of those feelings are perfectly normal. Those are the same feelings many of your clients have when they come to you with their legal problem. The feelings aren’t the issue. It’s how people tend to react when they’re emotional that can make a serious situation far more complicated.
You must be calm and objective when you respond to the allegations made against you. Angry responses may be used against you during the investigation. If you’re unable to remain calm and objective, consider partial-scope representation so that you can receive the direction you need to help you appropriately respond.
Who Is the Complaining Witness?
The purpose of attorney discipline is to protect the public. Yet, your clients (or former clients) aren’t the only people who can file a claim against you. The identity of the complaining witness is another important factor you must consider. If the complaining witness is an officer of the court, that’s an extremely serious matter and the bar will feel obligated to complete the investigation. With current and former clients, you may have to produce documentation that both respects attorney-client privilege and that exonerates you from the allegation. The line can be blurry. At the very least, a consultation with an ethics attorney can be helpful so that you understand the best practices you can take to defend yourself. If the complaining witness is a judge, you may find that it is beneficial to have a lawyer represent you.
If you have questions about attorney discipline, consider scheduling a consultation with Zavieh Law. You’ll learn more about what’s happening and what you can do to mitigate the damage. Our goal is to empower our clients and colleagues by providing them with the knowledge they need to make the best possible decision for their practices.
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!