How to File a Complaint with the Tennessee State Bar Association

By Christina Whitaker
Lawyers discuss a complaint.

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Sometimes attorneys don't put their clients' interests first. In Tennessee, all attorneys must adhere to ethical guidelines known as the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct drafted by the Tennessee Bar Association, a voluntary organization of licensed attorneys. The TBA is responsible for supporting the professional efforts of its members, including setting professional behavior guidelines for attorneys. However, to file a formal complaint against an unethical attorney in Tennessee, you must do so with the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Tennessee Supreme Court, which will investigate the facts and take appropriate action in the form of attorney discipline.

Attorneys' Ethics Violations

All lawyers who practice in Tennessee must abide by the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct, which govern the client-lawyer relationship. These rules require attorneys to generally act with diligence and competence. For example, an attorney must not miss important deadlines, which would put a client's case at risk. He must also properly disclose fees to clients and maintain client funds in a properly designated account. Under the rules, lawyers may not divulge confidential client information without permission, or take on work that creates a conflict of interest with another client.

Attorney Discipline

A violation of any of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct can lead to disciplinary action against the attorney. Failure to comply with the rules is grounds for discipline, which is administered by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Attorney discipline is not a criminal punishment, but ranges from private admonition and reprimand, public censure, suspension from practice for a specified time, up to permanent disbarment. Discipline is not meant to compensate the client for any loss due to the attorney's unethical actions -- as this is a separate case of professional negligence. The main purpose of discipline is to correct the lawyer's wrongdoings. To warrant discipline, the lawyer must have engaged in professional misconduct; merely making a mistake, or having a misunderstanding or disagreement with a client are not reasons for disciplinary action.

Complaint Procedure

To bring a disciplinary proceeding against an attorney in the state, the Tennessee Supreme Court requires that you first file a Memorandum of Complaint with the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Tennessee Supreme Court that includes your name, the name of the attorney and a description of the facts leading to the complaint. You should also provide any paperwork that supports your complaint. If, for example, you have alleged that your attorney missed several important filing deadlines, include relevant judicial orders and state or local rules that set out the limits for filing lawsuits.

Follow-Up Procedures

After you file the Memorandum of Complaint, the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Tennessee Supreme Court conducts an inquiry to determine if there is probable cause that the attorney committed the misconduct alleged in your complaint. If a ground for discipline exists, the board's hearing committee holds a formal hearing, where you may testify as a witness and produce evidence. The hearing committee can recommend discipline, but the entire board renders the final decision based upon the hearing committee's findings. Attorneys who have been disciplined by the board can appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. If the board recommends the most serious discipline -- suspension or disbarment -- the Tennessee Supreme Court must make the final determination.

About the Author

Christina Whitaker began her writing career in 2005 in newspaper journalism. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from UCLA and a law degree. Her legal experience includes work in Federal Court, and civil and criminal litigation. She also maintains a blog on social, pop-culture and cultural matters.

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