So what happens when a legal consumer files a bar complaint? Are the attorneys ever really disciplined? Recently, the Washington Lawyer magazine ran an article titled Q&A With Eric Yaffe: Chair of the Board on Professional Responsibility, addressing these and other questions. In short, the bar complaint process can be involved, and sometimes attorneys are disciplined.
The board’s central mission is to protect the public, the courts, and the legal profession by ensuring that the rules that govern all lawyers are abided by in the District of Columbia. We are trying to make sure that there is a fair process, that attorneys and complainants have an opportunity to be heard, and that a fair decision is ultimately rendered.
According to Mr. Yaffe, there are four levels to D.C.’s attorney disciplinary system: Office of Bar Counsel; a hearing committee; the Board on Professional Responsibility; and the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Reportedly, when a complaint is registered with the bar, the Office of Bar Counsel investigates and decides whether the complaint should be dismissed or proceed. If the Office of Bar Counsel decides the matter should be swiftly resolved with an informal admonition or diversion, it must be approved by a hearing committee member. Sometimes a Board member is required to review and approve a diversion agreement (meant to rehabilitate or re-educate an attorney on their ethical obligations).
If Bar Counsel decides to proceed, termed “specifying charges,” the hearing committee holds a hearing to review the matter. The hearing committee is made up of three volunteers: two lawyers and one non-lawyer. After hearing witnesses and considering evidence, the hearing committee makes an initial determination, which is submitted to the Board in writing as “findings of fact, conclusions of law, and any sanctions it recommends.”
If the decision is appealed by either party, the Board holds oral arguments, reviews the hearing committee’s findings, and submits a report and recommendations to the D.C. Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals is the ultimate decider and can agree with the Board, disagree with the Board, or remand the case for further proceedings.
At this point, there is a short list of disciplinary measures that can be taken. Least serious is a public letter of informal admonition from Bar Counsel, which is published in the Washington Lawyer and on the D.C. Bar’s website. The next, slightly higher level of discipline is a Board reprimand. For the next level of discipline, the D.C. Court of Appeals can publicly censure the attorney. For all of these forms of discipline, the attorney can still practice law and is not suspended.
More serious infractions can result in a suspension from practicing law for 30 days to three years. Suspensions can include probation or forms of monitoring and can be imposed with a fitness requirement, where the attorney must prove fitness to practice after expiration of the suspension. The most serious is disbarment, which amounts to a five-year suspension with a fitness requirement.
The article does not address the number or percentage of legal consumer complaints that are dismissed or that proceed to a given stage. Nor does the article address the types of alleged infractions that are dismissed or that proceed to a given stage.
Regardless, for any legal consumer who believes that an attorney has acted unethically, at least with respect to the D.C. Bar, the article provides some insight into the bar complaint process.