Hiring an attorney is supposed to resolve an individual's problems in the easiest possible way. But when an attorney acts unethically, they can cause more problems than they solve. In the state of Maryland, there is an organization that investigates attorney ethics complaints, and it isn't the Maryland State Bar Association.
An unhappy client, an irritated judge, or a concerned attorney can file an ethics complaint with the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission.
Maryland State Bar Association
In many states, the bar association licenses attorneys, collects bar dues from them, investigates charges against them, and also disciplines them. That is why it makes perfect sense to think that the Maryland State Bar Association is the best place to file a professional complaint against a Maryland lawyer.
But the rules are different in Maryland. The Maryland State Bar Association doesn’t accept or handle complaints against lawyers. While it can assist with a fee dispute, it cannot hear or adjudicate complaints of ethical violations.
All attorneys who practice law in Maryland must abide by a set of ethics rules called the Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct. The agency that accepts complaints about unprofessional conduct, investigates the complaint, holds attorney misconduct hearings, and disciplines legal professionals is called the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission.
Dispute an Attorney Fee
The Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA) assists clients who are involved in fee disputes with their Maryland attorneys. This is done through the Committee on the Resolution of Fee Disputes. It includes an executive council, consisting of a chair, seven vice-chairs, and over 100 members who volunteer to act as client representatives and arbitrators.
The committee has authority to investigate attorneys anywhere in the state other than:
- Baltimore City.
- Baltimore County.
- Montgomery County.
- Prince George’s County.
For fee disputes in those areas, a complainant must contact their local bar association or reach out to the Committee on Resolution of Fee Disputes for more information. For fee disputes under the jurisdiction of the committee, file a complaint online.
Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission
The Attorney Grievance Commission (AGC), through the Office of Bar Counsel, accepts complaints from members of the public, judges and other lawyers who allege professional misconduct by a licensed attorney. If it appears that a practicing Maryland lawyer has violated one or more of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the Office of Bar Counsel attorneys investigate the circumstances.
Note that despite the use of the term "complaint," a complaint filed with the AGC is not the way to recover money from the attorney. Nor should an individual expect the agency to:
- Set aside a criminal conviction.
- Force the lawyer to take certain actions the client desires them to take.
- Offer them legal advice.
- Take the place of a court of law with civil or criminal remedies.
- Provide any other type of assistance.
Rather, the only possible results of an ethics violation are disciplinary. The attorney can be censured, fined and/or disbarred.
Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct
Before filing an ethics complaint, it is a good idea to review the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct to determine whether the matter at hand truly violated the rules. Filing an ethics charge is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly.
The ethics rules are intended to define and clarify the relationship between the legal system and licensed attorneys in Maryland. They set standards of ethical conduct that give the public confidence in the legal profession and ensure that attorneys are advancing the public interest.
Many ethics rules cover a variety of topics. They describe all steps of a legal career in the state, from admission to the Maryland bar to resigning from the bar. The rules outline issues that can arise in the attorney client relationship, with topics ranging from trust accounts to fees to conflicts of interest.
File an Ethics Complaint
Once an individual reviews the ethics rules and determines that their attorney may have acted in violation of the rules, filing a complaint is not difficult. First, it is necessary to obtain an order to file an ethics complaint with the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission. Download a copy of the form from the MAGC website. The complaint form is available in English and in Spanish, in PDF format or Word.
The complaint form asks for information about the:
- Individual making the complaint.
- Attorney who is the subject of the complaint.
- Circumstances leading up to the complaint.
It asks for a statement about the facts of the situation as the person understands them, either on the form or on separate paper. These should:
- Include a statement of what the attorney did or did not do that is the basis of the complaint.
- Not include opinions or arguments.
- State what the attorney was hired to do.
- Be dated and signed on separate piece of paper.
Don't forget to sign the complaint form. A signature is mandatory before the commission investigates. Mail the completed complaint to the Office of Bar Counsel at 200 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Suite 300, Annapolis, MD 21401.
Understand the Grievance Procedure
Once the complaint is received, the grievance procedure begins. An attorney working for the commission, called the bar counsel, will review it and proceed to investigate. This can include asking for written statements under oath, witness testimony and documents review.
If the bar counsel finds that there were violations but they were not serious, they can recommend that the matter be heard before a peer review committee. Bar counsel can also recommend dismissal if there are no serious violations. If the bar counsel believes that a serious violation has occurred, the AGC can immediately file public charges against the attorney.
Peer Review Panels
Peer review is a confidential process where the attorney being charged and the bar counsel attorney meet with five peers – other attorneys who are not involved in the issue or members of the public. They again review the evidence and hear from the attorney. The peer review process can result in one of three commendations:
- Public charges.
If the recommendation is either a reprimand or a public charge, a Petition for Disciplinary Charges is filed with the Maryland court of appeals, and a bench trial is held following discovery. The court of appeals makes a final ruling, and the individual who filed the complaint is notified of the outcome by mail.
- Don’t file a complaint with the commission to obtain a fee. The commission doesn’t resolve fee disputes. You must go to the MSBA’s committee to resolve any fee disputes.
- Whether you choose to complete a form or write a letter, do not forget to sign the document. The commission requires a handwritten signature on the complaint. For instance, if you write a letter and type your name, the complaint won’t be valid.
- The commission doesn’t offer any legal advice or representation. It can’t provide any lawyer referrals. You have to go to the MSBA.
- To use the PDF’s interactive fields, you must have an Adobe Acrobat Reader version that is 5.0 or higher. An older version won’t let you type into the interactive fields.
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.