It just makes sense to contact the New Jersey Bar Association if a problem with an attorney arises. But this is not the appropriate procedure in New Jersey. While there is a simple arbitration procedure organized for ordinary fee disputes, all ethical complaints are filed with the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE), rather than with the New Jersey Bar Association.
New Jersey Bar Association Attorney Registration
Most states have a bar association that is involved with the affairs of attorneys in that state. Some, like the California Bar Association, provide services to lawyers, provide lawyer recommendations for the public, collect dues from attorneys, and also accept complaints against attorneys regarding the way they've handled a case or manage their legal practice.
The New Jersey Bar Association is a different type of organization. Unlike California's Bar Association, membership in the New Jersey Bar Association is not mandatory for lawyers in the state. Rather, it is a voluntary organization of more than 18,000 members in the legal profession.
They offer how-to information for new attorneys on requirements for the practice of law in the state, including the continuing education requirements.
Referrals and Access to Legal Advice
Attorney referrals are made on a county bar association level. The New Jersey State Bar offers a list of how to contact the referral line in different counties. This is the place to go for those who need legal services but don't know any attorneys.
The New Jersey State Bar Association also hosts "NJ Free Legal Answers," an online legal advice resource where members of the public post legal questions and get help from volunteer attorneys. This service allows individual New Jersey residents to get free initial advice from a legal professional to help them make decisions about how to proceed in a matter.
This is the online version of a traditional walk-in legal clinic. However, these communications with attorneys occur only through the website and are limited to civil and some family matters.
The Office of Attorney Ethics
In New Jersey, the New Jersey Supreme Court is charged with attorney discipline. This is handled by a division of the court called the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE). It was created by the Supreme Court of New Jersey in 1983 as an agency to manage all fee arbitration committees throughout the state to hear client disputes over lawyers' bills for services.
The OAE also has jurisdiction to:
- Investigate and prosecute complex and/or serious ethics matters.
- Handle ethics matters in which the lawyer is simultaneously a criminal defendant.
- Ask the New Jersey Supreme Court to immediately and temporarily suspend an attorney's right to practice law in the state when they are convicted of a serious criminal violation.
- Ask the New Jersey Supreme Court to immediately and temporarily suspend an attorney's right to practice law in the state if client trust money has been stolen.
- Conduct audits of attorneys' business and trust accounts to make sure that proper records of clients' funds and attorneys' fees are maintained by all lawyers.
Professional Conduct and Misconduct in NJ
All attorneys licensed or offering services in the state of New Jersey are bound by the state's Rules of Professional Conduct. Anyone who believes that their attorney may have acted unethically should consult these rules before considering a complaint.
Among other acts, it is considered professional misconduct if a lawyer:
- Will not return money that belongs to the client.
- Refuses to respond to client questions about their case, including court dates or required court appearances.
- Advises a client to lie or misrepresent facts as part of their case.
- Represents both parties or conflicting interests in a commercial or legal matter.
Purpose of Disciplinary Proceedings
It is important to realize that filing a complaint or grievance against an attorney will not recover any funds for a client. The sole purpose of attorney disciplinary proceedings is to enforce the ethical and professional code by imposing discipline on a lawyer who has behaved in an unethical manner.
Nor does filing a grievance give a client legal representation against the attorney. Neither the OAE nor the district ethics committees provide private advice to anyone filing a grievance.
If a client wishes to recover money damages against their attorney, they need to hire another lawyer and bring a civil suit in the state courts against the original lawyer. The ethics committees are not courts and do not have authority to award money damages to any party.
Filing a NJ Attorney Grievance
If a client has grounds for an ethical grievance, they can fill out a New Jersey attorney ethics grievance form. A fill-able form can be found on the New Jersey courts website. The client must complete the grievance form, including inputting:
- Name and contact information.
- Name and contact information of the attorney.
- Information about whether the lawyer is still representing the client.
- Information about the type of legal matter involved.
- Description of the lawyer's acts or failures to act that appear to be unethical conduct.
- Names of any and all witnesses to the attorney's actions or inaction.
- Proof or evidence available about the matter.
Sign and date the grievance form and make two copies. Send the original plus the copies to the OAE secretary for the New Jersey district where the lawyer involved practices law. For details about the attorney’s district number and their address, visit the OAE’s hotline.
Fee Disputes Are Not OAE Matters
Fee disputes such as those when a client disputes the amount of fees claimed by their attorney for services rendered or their attorney's billing practices are not a basis of discipline by the OAE. Anyone with this type of complaint is referred by OAE personnel to one of the state’s fee arbitration committees.
It is faster, in this case, to call the Fee Arbitration Hotline directly at 800-406-8594. The caller is asked to input the Zip code where the lawyer practices. The call is then automatically transferred to the fee arbitration committee for the appropriate district. From there, the client will be able to obtain a grievance form and instructions about sending it.
- 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.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.