If you are hiring an attorney, it makes sense to find out about complaints filed against him by other clients about legal malpractice or ethical misdeeds. Search your state's attorney disciplinary board listing or apply to the American Bar Association's nationwide Data Bank.
Attorney Standards and Misconduct
All lawyers who practice in a particular state must live up to the ethical standards set for attorneys by the judiciary and/or the state legislature. The rules of practice include fee issues as well as ethical standards. The American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct, contains best practices for lawyers and is often adapted in part by state regulators.
Clients, as well as judges and other lawyers, can file complaints with the state's disciplinary board when they believe that an attorney has violated those standards. The disciplinary boards are often called Bar Associations and investigate and prosecute complaints against lawyers.
Common types of behavior that are subject of attorney complaints are:
- Attorney incompetence. The attorney does not have the knowledge and experience to handle your case.
- Failure to communicate. Clients expect to be kept informed about what's going on with their cases, and they have a right to this information.
- Behavior after being fired. Clients always have the right to fire an attorney, and the attorney cannot refuse to release the client's file even if attorneys’ fees haven’t been paid in full.
- Conflicts of interest. An attorney must always act in the best interests of the client and avoid representing two clients who have opposing interests.
- Stealing. Attorneys who steal client funds, don't give clients settlement money or charge illegally high fees are violating their ethical responsibilities.
Complaints to State Disciplinary Boards
The state board charged with attorney discipline accepts and investigates written complaints about lawyers licensed to practice or practicing in that state. Not every attorney complaint leads to disbarment. Rather, most state boards have a range of possible actions they can take against an offending attorney, including private or public reprimands, suspension for a set period, restitution of money stolen and disbarment. Further, if the board investigates a complaint and finds that the complaint was frivolous or otherwise did not have merit, there will be no record of it.
Find Complaints Against Lawyers
Some state disciplinary boards publish websites where members of the public can run a search for an attorney by name. You can look there to see if the lawyer has a history of complaints and/or discipline.
Since 1968, the American Bar Association's Center for Professional Responsibility has offered the National Lawyer Regulatory Data Bank as a national repository of information about regulatory actions relating to lawyers. Unlike state bar associations, the Data Bank offers information about lawyer discipline throughout the country.
This national Data Bank makes reciprocal discipline easier for states, and it also helps prevent the admission of lawyers who have been disbarred or suspended elsewhere. The 50 states, the District of Columbia, and many federal courts forward regulatory information to this repository.
The Data Bank also will search attorney names for members of the public. Put your request in writing and send it to:
National Lawyer Regulatory Data Bank
Center for Professional Responsibility
American Bar Association
321 North Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60610
Most states have online access for consumers to look up disciplinary actions against attorneys. The state bar association is a good place to start, or you may be able to use the ABA's nationwide database.