With more than 40,000 attorneys practicing in the state of New Jersey, some are bound to be better than others. If you think your attorney acted unethically, complaints are filed with the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics, rather than the New Jersey Bar Association. The OAE is a division of the New Jersey Supreme Court, which is responsible for attorney discipline. Complaints are reviewed by the secretary of a districts committee and, if valid, are referred for an investigation of the allegations.
File a Grievance With the NJ Office of Attorney Ethics
Attorneys licensed in the state of New Jersey, as well as any lawyer providing legal services in the state, are bound by the state's Rules of Professional Conduct. Consult these rules to determine whether you have grounds to make a complaint. Among other acts, it is considered professional misconduct if a lawyer:
- Will not return money that s/he is holding for you
- Fails to respond to questions about your case, tell you about court dates or appear in court
- Advises you to lie or lies during the case
- Represents both parties to a transaction
Fee disputes are not generally a basis of discipline by the OAE. If your complaint involves a dispute about your lawyer’s fees or billing practices, the OAE refers these complaints to one of the state’s fee arbitration committees. You can also call the Fee Arbitration Hotline directly at 800-406-8594. Enter the zip code where your lawyer practices. The hotline will transfer your call to the fee arbitration committee for the appropriate district so you can request a grievance form and an address for where to send it.
NJ Attorney Complaint Procedures
If you believe you have grounds for a complaint, fill out a NJ attorney ethics grievance form, available from the New Jersey courts website. Complete the grievance form by giving your name and contact information, as well as the lawyer’s name and business address. Indicate whether the lawyer is still representing you and for what type of matter, such as divorce, bankruptcy or a civil suit. Do not fill out the bottom part on the front of the form that asks for docket information – the OAE will do this if your complaint is accepted. Explain on the back of the form what the lawyer did that you think was unethical. Give names of any witnesses and attach any proof you have, then sign and date the form.
Mail the grievance form plus two copies to the OAE secretary for the New Jersey district where the lawyer you're complaining about practices. The attorney’s district number and address are available through the OAE’s hotline at 800-406-8594.
Read More: How to Write a Complaint Letter About an Attorney
The OAE Grievance Process
Each complaint is first reviewed by the OAE district secretary to determine if the grounds are valid. The secretary will docket a valid complaint and forward it to the Ethics Committee for an investigation by a lawyer member. If your grounds aren’t valid, the secretary won’t docket the case. You’ll be notified one way or the other within 45 days.
The investigating lawyer will file a written report of the investigation to the chair of the district ethics committee, who will determine whether there is adequate proof of unethical conduct. If there is adequate proof, a formal complaint is prepared and served on the lawyer, and a disciplinary hearing panel is held. After the hearing, the panel will either dismiss the complaint if there is a finding of no misconduct or discipline the attorney. Discipline can range from admonition to disbarment.
Unfortunately, you don't have the right to appeal if the secretary doesn't docket your ethics complaint because she doesn't believe it's valid. But if your complaint is forwarded to an investigating lawyer member or to the chair of the OAE investigative committee, and the complaint is dismissed after an investigation, you can contact the New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board at P.O. Box 962, Trenton, NJ 08625 to request an appeal form.
- If your complaint involves a dispute about your lawyer's fees or billing practices, the bar refers these complaints to one of the state's 17 fee arbitration committees. Call the Fee Arbitration Hotline at (800) 406-8594. Enter the zip code where your lawyer practices. The hotline will transfer your call to the fee arbitration committee for the appropriate district so you can request a grievance form and an address for where to send it.
- If the secretary does not docket your ethics complaint because she does not believe it is valid, you don't have the right to appeal. However, if the bar's investigating lawyer member or the chair of the AOE investigative committee dismisses your charges, you can contact the New Jersey Disciplinary Review Board at P.O. Box 962, Trenton, NJ 08625 to request an appeal form.
Sally Brooks is a writer living in New York City with her chunky toddler and patient husband. She graduated magna cum laude from the University Cincinnati College of Law and her work has been featured in Jurist and the Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review.