Where Do You Start When You Get an Ethics Complaint?

Receiving an ethics complaint from the state bar is a scary experience. There are so many questions that invade your mind. The most important one: where do you start? That’s what we’re going to talk about in this post.

Step 1: Don’t Ignore the Ethics Complaint

Ignoring the ethics complaint won’t make it go away. You may not believe that the allegations against you warrants an investigation. A timely and carefully drafted response is a necessity.

Step 2: Read the Entire Ethics Complaint

To truly understand the potential consequences you’re facing and to understand the allegations you must address, you must take the time to read the entire ethics complaint. Don’t skim it. Don’t pick and choose what to read. Start at the beginning and carefully read the entire complaint as if you were reading something filed against one of your clients. After you read the ethics complaint, review the matter that caused the complaint to be filed. Remain calm while you read.

Step 3: Note the Deadline for Response

Find the deadline by which you must file a response. This is important. If necessary, ask the investigator for an extension.

Step 4: Create a Game Plan for Your Defense

Ethics complaints are serious matters for lawyers. How you plan your defense will depend on several factors:

  • Who filed the complaint?
  • What are the potential consequences?
  • Do you have a previous history of bar discipline?

The identity of the complainant is important. The state bar wants to protect the public. They’re going to consider the identity of the complainant. The state bar will almost certainly take an ethics complaint filed by a judge or other legal professional quite seriously. Regardless of who filed the complaint against you, do not attack them in your response.

If the potential consequence is a private reprimand or a small fine, it’s possible that you could handle the matter on your own. The more serious of a consequence you face, you should at least consult with an ethics defense lawyer to help you plan your defense.

If you have a previous history of bar discipline, the investigators are less likely to be lenient. To protect your career, you may find that full-scope representation is best.

Review the ethics rules in your jurisdiction. Even if you plan to consult with or hire a lawyer to represent you, you need to understand the rules so that you can create a plan to protect yourself and your practice in the future.

Step 5: Draft a Rational, Calm Response to the Allegations Against You

Don’t attempt to take your anger out on the investigator. Burying them in paper by sending them your entire case file can actually be detrimental to your cause. Draft a rational, calm response to the allegations against you. If you’re not in a frame of mind that allows you to do that, take a walk or do something that helps you calm down and focus. Remember, do not attack the complainant. In our experience as a law firm, doing so almost always backfires and calls attention to the possibility that the allegations against you are true.

An ethics defense lawyer can help you plan and draft a response. Even if you just get guidance, you’re still better prepared than writing it alone. Writing a defensive response is much different when you’re the subject than when you’re writing it on behalf of a client.

If you need resources, Zavieh Law is here to help. We provide consultations for both limited and full scope representation. We also have The State Bar Playbook available for lawyers involved in the State Bar of California discipline system. It’s an interactive guide that walks lawyers through from the very moment you get the letter all the way through the appeals process.

If you’re facing an ethics complaint from the California bar, check out The State Bar Playbook, Megan’s interactive guide to the California disciplinary system:

State Bar Court practice guide
A practice guide for self-represented lawyers in State Bar Court
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