Don’t Panic. Most lawyers receive at least one bar complaint during their tenure as a lawyer. Read the Commission letter carefully. Depending on your jurisdiction, sometimes the Grievance Commission is responding for you, stating that the compliant does not fall within the Bar’s jurisdiction. It is merely a copy of the notice of the response to your client. But if the letter is asking for a response from you, then my all means this letter deserves your full attention. Remember the absolutely worst thing you can ever do is to not respond or not respond within the time requested for a response. A non-response is the quickest way to turn a simple matter into a suspension or disbarment and possibly kiss your law license goodbye.
Here are some common sense steps:
1. Before even starting a response to the Bar, cool down. One of the 1st things you should do is to determine if you need to get an attorney that specializes in grievance commission work involved. Many malpractice insurance carriers offer free confidential advice via a hot line from a law firm that specializes in attorney issues. If your carrier does, by all means take advantage of this advice before going forward with a response. Remember that the hotline law firm treats the call as confidential and does not report this call to your insurance carrier. This also means that if the advice from this call is to retain counsel, then your next call needs to be to your malpractice insurance agent or insurance carrier’s claims department to report the matter. Most admitted insurance carriers offer bar grievance coverage, either as a “duty to defend” or as a “reimbursement of expenses”. The insurance carrier may also suggest attorneys in your area that specialize in grievance commission work.
2. If you choose not to obtain counsel to represent you, it is still a good idea to have another attorney reviews your response. If after your initial response the commission asks for further information, or it looks like you are heading for a hearing, you likely should make sure you have counsel to represent you. Only foolish lawyers should be representing themselves at a hearing.
3. Before writing an emotional response to Bar Counsel, review the legal matter, the history of the case, and the client who filed the complaint. Then focus on the issues involved in the complaint. This gives you time to response based on facts rather than emotions. Review the entire file to make sure that you are able to recall every detail about the underlying legal matter.
4. Be very timely or better yet be early in your response. In the cover letter accompanying the complaint, there should be a date by which you are required to respond. If for some reason you cannot submit a timely response, you should request an extension. Grievance commissions will usually generally grant a “timely” initial reasonable request for an extension. If a circumstance exists that requires a lengthy response period such as illnesses, deaths, vacations, business or personal matters happen, you should explain that in writing to Bar Counsel and provide corroborating documents explaining the lengthy extension request.
5. Make sure to respond. There may have been no misconduct or maybe there was, but sticking your head in the sand in an effort to avoid dealing with the allegations made in the complaint is a sure way to go to double jeopardy where the penalties for not responding may far exceed the original punishment had you responded promptly. And not responding at all will surely lead to final jeopardy where you most likely will then be suspended and/or disbarred.
6. Answer the allegations honestly and concisely. You need to provide a comprehensive and fair explanation of the facts and circumstances surrounding the allegations made in the complaint. Providing a full picture of the history of the representation will assist in rendering a decision. Remember there is no extra credit given for being verbose. Especially if the dissertation sent does not address the matter at hand.
7. This is also not a good time to twist words or attempt to mislead what took place by your response. It is likely that the commission’s attorneys will see right through this response and all it will do is promote contempt from the commission.
8. You need to provide the documents requested as exhibits to the response. If you have additional documents that help collaborate your version of events make sure to attach those also.
9. You should take the time to explain relevant areas of law as they relate to the underlying legal matter if needed. Do not assume that the commission is familiar with every practice area. Providing a copy of the applicable rule or statute that you have relied upon in the underlying matter will assist in determining the validity of the complaint.
10. You may not have contacted your professional liability insurance carrier prior to the response to the bar complaint. But it is essential that you protect your rights under your attorney malpractice insurance policy by putting your carrier on notice. Many times bar complaints have a habit of turning into malpractice claims. If you have not put your carrier on notice, there is a good chance that at a later date when you do report a claim on this matter, it will be denied because of prior knowledge. This is especially true if you have gone through a renewal cycle reporting to the carrier on the renewal application that all is well.
Bar complaints are always frustrating. Remember that a grievance is merely a complaint; it is not a finding of professional misconduct. With proper documentation and procedures up front, likely no misconduct will be found. But a bar complaint is also a good chance for self-reflection. Maybe there were procedures or better communication that you good have done that would have prevented the complaint in the first place. If that is the case then make the needed changes in your practice to help prevent future complaints. For instance, if you determine that you should have never taken on that client, maybe you need to change your client screening process.
From a malpractice insurance standpoint, one closed complaint that is dismissed is not a big deal. But if you are getting many complaints even if they are being eventually dismissed, you are likely to run into trouble obtaining competitive insurance premiums. The world may never by fair, but sometimes how you approach the world makes all of the difference.