The grievance committee of your local bar association sends you the dreaded letter in that envelope marked "personal and confidential." Your heart is pounding. You rush to open the letter, which informs you that your former client has filed a grievance against you. The client claims you did not handle his case competently and diligently, that you sided with the opposing party and her counsel, and you did not earn the "exorbitant" fee you charged. After you read the allegations, your anxiety turns to pure frustration.
You remember this is the same client you bent over backwards to help. You were more like a social worker, taking extra time to discuss the client's problems that were unrelated to the case. You know you should have never taken the case in the first place -- the facts were lousy, but you felt sorry for the client. Against your better judgment, you took on the matter knowing you were the client's third lawyer. You didn't even bother to ask why the other lawyers withdrew. You were patient with the client's eccentric behavior and even reduced your fee. You did not withdraw, even though you should have. It's true that "no good deed goes unpunished."
Given the foregoing, what can you do to save your reputation and avoid losing the law license? Carefully Review the Grievance and the Rules -- I know. It is difficult for you to have your integrity, let alone your livelihood, threatened. It is natural to become emotional. Yet, you must remain composed and deliberately consider the specific claims against you in the client's allegations:
- Consider whether there is any truth to the client's claims. Read the applicable Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct prior to attempting any response. Consider whether the facts support any rule violation.
- Read the relevant part of the Supreme Court Rules for the Government of the Bar of Ohio, setting forth the procedure for the grievance review and the process for adjudication of formal lawyer discipline cases. For those who do not routinely work in the lawyer discipline area, the process can seem very complex, so think about seeking help from someone familiar with the process.
Communicate with the Investigating Lawyer, and Consider Hiring Counsel - The letter will tell you to whom you must respond. Do not be afraid to telephone that person with questions about the process, including procedural steps:
- I know it is difficult, but try to objectively consider the facts measured against the potential rule violations. If you find it very difficult to be objective or it is apparent that the former client's allegations have some merit, consider whether it is prudent to represent yourself in such a situation. Keep in mind the old adage about a lawyer who represents himself or herself.
- Only proceed without ethics counsel if you can remain objective and it is clear the grievance is unfounded. You should not wait until authorities decide to file formal charges against you before you hire counsel. In the early investigative stage, ethics counsel helps you avoid formal charges. In contrast, once formal charges are filed, ethics counsel's job is to help you keep working or return to work as soon as possible.
Cooperate with the Investigation; Address the Merits; and Seek Review of Your Response by a Colleague - By all means, respond on time and do not ignore the grievance. Failure to assist in the investigation is a disciplinary violation itself:
- Many lawyers get themselves in trouble by failing to respond to grievances that have no merit and which would undoubtedly be dismissed, if a proper response were submitted. If you find that you feel paralyzed and cannot respond, consider speaking with a mental health professional and contacting the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program. Remember, it is not sensible to ignore a situation that can place your career in jeopardy.
- When you respond, keep your response focused and to the point. Those experienced in the process know that you must focus on the substance of the complaint and resist the temptation to attack the complainant. Prove that by any objective standard you properly represented the client's interests. Prove you were cordial and professional to the other side, but put the client's interests first. Prove your fees were reasonable and document that you earned them.
- If the facts are in dispute, tell your side of the story, but provide documents to prove your version is accurate. If you are still representing the complainant, consider whether you can and should withdraw. If the client has been damaged in any way, consider how the client can be restored. If you speak with the complainant during the investigation, remain professional at all times and do not interfere with the investigation.
- If you decide against counsel, have a law partner, mentor, or trusted colleague review your response for its tone and clarity.
The truth is that lawyers too often shrug off client complaints. These lawyers lose their objectivity and forget that their reputation and career are potentially at stake when a client complains. Lawyers must always be cognizant that practicing law is a privilege and not a right and all client complaints must be addressed promptly and with the utmost seriousness and respect for the lawyer discipline system.