Because people hire lawyers to help them through difficult situations, their professional misconduct and unethical behavior can have a big impact on both their clients and the judicial system. To this end, Texas has enacted the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct to set uniform standards for ethical attorney conduct.
Attorneys who violate these standards are subject to discipline that can even include disbarment. Any client or member of the public witnessing such behavior can file a grievance with the State Bar of Texas.
Bad Lawyers in Texas
There is more than one way of being bad, and this applies with as much force to attorneys as it does to anyone else. A bad attorney can engage in unethical conduct, like representing clients with competing interests, stealing money from a client's case settlement, or failing to appear in court or file needed documents.
A client with an unethical attorney can contact the State Bar of Texas which will investigate the matter and weigh in.
If an attorney is found to have violated one of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the State Bar will impose some form of discipline after a hearing. This ranges from reprimanding the lawyer, putting them on probation for a set period of time, or even preventing them from practicing law altogether.
Impact of a Violation of the Rules of Conduct
However, a violation of the Rules of Conduct does not give the client anything more than the satisfaction of seeing a bad attorney called out and punished by their professional organization.
It is not a basis for civil liability, nor can the Texas State Bar deal with refunds of overcharges or similar issues. Its sole focus is whether the attorney violated one of the rules of professional conduct.
Bringing a Malpractice Suit
Alternatively, another type of bad lawyer is one who commits legal malpractice, like failing to raise appropriate defenses or failing to file a court document on time. If the attorney's inadequate work constitutes malpractice, under Texas law the client can bring a malpractice lawsuit to recover money damages.
The State Bar of Texas does not accept grievances regarding malpractice, nor can they adjudicate such matters or take any action to make the client whole.
Violation of Rules of Professional Conduct
Anyone who has knowledge that an attorney has violated the Rules of Professional Conduct in Texas is eligible to file a grievance with the State Bar of Texas. The person filing the grievance need not be a current or a former client.
They can be a member of the general public who has witnessed unethical behavior or judges in Texas or even outside the state who have seen a Texas lawyer engage in professional misconduct.
Ethical Rules for Attorneys
What exactly do the rules require? There are many ethical rules for attorneys, set out in the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. In order to understand the scope of what is considered unethical, both clients and lawyers should read the entire rules document. Examples of behavior required by the rules include the duty to:
- Maintain the highest standards of ethical conduct.
- Zealously pursue clients' interests within the bounds of the law.
- Not accept employment in a legal matter that the lawyer knows to be beyond their competence.
- Act with competence, commitment and dedication to the interest of the client.
- Avoid procrastination that can endanger a client's case.
- Keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter.
- Not assist a client to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent.
- Not charge or collect an illegal or unconscionable fee.
The State Bar notes that the rules and the attached comments do not "exhaust the moral and ethical considerations that should guide a lawyer." As they state, no worthwhile human activity can be completely defined by legal rules, and there is some discretion that a lawyer in their professional capacity can exercise, without being judged for rule violation.
When Is a Bar Complaint Inappropriate?
Sometimes a Texas attorney and their client are not well-suited to work together. The fact that the two have different, incompatible styles does not make the attorney wrong or justify a State Bar grievance, or make the attorney eligible for attorney discipline.
Likewise, the fact that a client is dissatisfied with the outcome of a lawsuit handled by the lawyer is not a valid reason to file an attorney complaint.
Every lawsuit involves two sides and, much as an attorney might like to win every case, a client cannot hold them to this standard. Fee disputes are generally outside the scope of the Office of Chief Disciplinary counsel, as well.
How to File a Grievance Against a Lawyer in Texas
The first step in filing a grievance in the discipline system is to complete a grievance form through the State Bar’s online submission system. The form is available in English and Spanish and is located here.
This can also be done by downloading a complaint form from the State Bar's website. If an individual prefers to receive a print copy rather than downloading it, they can request that a copy be sent to them. To do this, they should call the State Bar at 866-224-5999.
After filling out the form, the complainant should mail it with copies of supporting documents to: State Bar of Texas, Chief Disciplinary Counsel's Office, P.O. Box 13287 Austin, TX 78711, or Fax it to: 512-427-4169.
It is a bad idea to send original documents since the State Bar does not return this material. The form must be signed by the complainant and dated, and doing so waives the attorney-client privilege.
Statute of Limitations for the Grievance System
Generally, a person has four years from the time the lawyer allegedly engaged in misconduct to submit a grievance to the State Bar of Texas.
Classification Stage of a Disciplinary Action
After a grievance is filed, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for the Texas State Bar reviews it. Within 30 days, they form an opinion as to whether the claimed conduct by the lawyer constitutes a violation of the rules. This review is termed the classification stage of the disciplinary process.
A grievance is classified as an inquiry, and dismissed if it does not allege a violation of the rules; it is classified as a complaint and investigated by the Chief Disciplinary Counsel if it does. The State Bar notifies the complainant when the decision has been made by the Chief Disciplinary Counsel.
Just Cause Stage of Disciplinary Process
If the matter proceeds, it is handled by the Regional Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel in Austin, Dallas, Houston or San Antonio. A copy of the complaint is sent to the lawyer who has 30 days in which to submit a written response.
The investigation proceeds over the next 60 days to determine whether there is sufficient cause to believe that professional misconduct occurred. This is referred to as the "just cause" investigation.
If the Chief Disciplinary Counsel concludes that there is just cause to believe professional misconduct occurred, they notify the lawyer. The lawyer can choose whether to have a grievance committee panel or a district judge hear the case.
- Record anything, such as unreturned phone calls or a refusal to copy your file for you, you think may constitute misconduct by your attorney. These records can be submitted with your grievance form as evidence.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. 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 MA and an MFA in English/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.