Maryland’s Attorney Grievance Commission (“AGC”) issued a 2019 annual report which reflects that the number of disciplinary complaints is down, while the number of sanctioned attorneys is up. According to the report, the AGC received 1657 complaints about lawyers in 2019 (down from 1802 in 2018) and docketed 278 of those for further investigation. Seventy-seven attorneys were sanctioned in 2019, which is an increase from the 65 attorneys sanctioned in 2018. Twenty-six attorneys have been disbarred in 2019, the same number as in 2018.
The report also details that the majority of the docketed cases dealt with a failure to safeguard client property, followed by a failure to respond to Bar Counsel’s initial inquiries. Complaints involving civil litigation were the most common, followed by family law matters. The report also noted that the most common reason for disciplinary action was lack of competence, diligence or client communication, followed by a failure to maintain certain records, account for and properly oversee funds and/or maintain trust accounts.
There are several key takeaways from the report. First, the ACG is becoming increasingly concerned with overseeing how cases are litigated by attorneys. When clients complain, the AGC will step in to evaluate the attorney’s handling of a case. Recent experience tells us that Bar Counsel often evaluates attorney’s conduct with the benefit of hindsight. Thus, poor results are more likely to result in disciplinary proceedings now, more than at any time in the past.
Another takeaway is that the mishandling of attorney IOLTA accounts remains the primary reason attorneys end up with severe sanctions. Lawyers must act now to make sure their IOLTA accounts comply with the Rules. This means making sure the account is regularly reconciled and that proper records are kept.
The last takeaway from the AGC’s 2019 annual report is that it is imperative to contact counsel if you have received a letter from Bar Counsel. Ignoring Bar Counsel or trying to cobble together a response on your own will likely lead to additional, bigger problems, and potentially cause you to become a statistic in 2020.