With more than 41,000 attorneys practicing in the state of New Jersey as of 2015, some are bound to be better than others. You can lodge complaints against unethical lawyers or for unfair billing practices, but neither the bar association nor the Supreme Court will discipline attorneys for rudeness, failing to return phone calls promptly, or because you disagree with the handling of your case. Attorneys must do something provably unethical for the bar or the state to take action.
Grounds to Make a Complaint
Access the New Jersey State Bar Association website to make sure you have grounds to make a complaint. Grounds generally include issues like a lawyer refusing to give you money you're owed or an accounting of money that she's holding in a trust account for you. She might neglect to appear in court or to notify you of a court date, have a conflict of interest that she didn’t disclose to you, or lie to you or someone else regarding your case.
The Attorney Ethics Grievance Form
Print out an attorney ethics grievance form, available from the New Jersey Courts website if you find that you have grounds for a complaint. The Supreme Court requires the bar to send its ethics complaints to the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics, or OAE, as of October 1983.
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 kind 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 was unethical. Give names of any witnesses and attach any proof you have, then sign and date the form.
Send the Form to the OAE
Mail the grievance form plus two copies to the AOE 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 AOE’s hotline at (800) 406-8594. If your grounds are valid, the secretary will docket your complaint when he receives it and forward it to to the bar association for 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.
Disputes About Fees
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. 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.
Can You Appeal?
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 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.