Lawyer Ethics Complaint: How This Terrible Experience Could Be a Vital Wakeup Call

May 16, 2019 | Blog

A lawyer ethics complaint is one of the most feared possibilities. There’s simply no way to guarantee if the bar will ultimately drop the investigation, publicly or privately reprimand you, fine you, suspend you, or disbar you. As a law firm devoted to lawyers in need of ethics defense in California, we obviously talk a lot about lawyer ethics complaints here and on the podcast, Lawyers Gone Ethical.  In this post, we’re going to discuss a different angle: how receiving a lawyer ethics complaint could be a vital wakeup call for you.


Related: Where Do You Start When You Get an Ethics Complaint?

How a Lawyer Ethics Complaint Could Act as a Wakeup Call

When someone files an ethics complaint against you, they’re making at least one serious allegation against you. It’s important to read the complaint from an objective standpoint even if you don’t think that there is any merit to the allegation(s).

Take the allegations and consider their weight. For example, if the lawyer ethics complaint states that the complainant did not receive returned phone calls from you or timely matter updates, it would be wise to look at your current communication practices with all of your clients. If the complaint states that the complainant received an invoice with charges they don’t understand or fees that they did not expect, that could be a sign to look at your timekeeping, billing, and your communication practices.

Related: Essential Law Firm Billing Best Practices (Regardless of Firm Size)

Taking Action to Protect Your Practice

Even if you believe that the bar will drop the ethics complaint filed against you, it’s important that you take proper action to fix any existing issue and prevent future issues. Follow these steps:

  1. Read the complaint in its entirety from an objective point of view. We know this situation creates a volatile set of emotions.
  2. Do not ignore the complaint. Like any other proceeding involving a legal issue, there is a deadline by which you must respond.
  3. Do not take your frustration out on the investigator by sending out a snippy response or by burying them in paper. Both could come back to haunt you.
  4. Take note of who filed the complaint. If it was another legal professional, you should know that the bar is going to take their identity into consideration. If it was a current or previous client, don’t write it off. There could still be a problem with your practice.
  5. Identify the issue and get the tools you need to improve it. If you don’t think it’s a problem, it’s still a good idea to review that area of your practice to ensure it’s running as it should.

What If You Can’t Be Objective?

If you can’t be objective, find someone who can. This could be another lawyer you’re friends with, your spouse, a mentor, or an ethics defense lawyer. Keep in mind that you’ll need to remain objective throughout the entire process, including when you draft your response.

Should you draft your own response? Should you represent yourself? The answer to these questions depends on several factors. Of course, the first factor is your ability to be objective. If you cannot remain objective, you should not respond or represent yourself. Is this the first lawyer ethics complaint filed against you? If you’ve had more than one, the bar is less likely to work with you to resolve the matter. They may decide to play hardball. What are the potential consequences? If the potential consequences are relatively minor (and you can remain objective and this is your first lawyer ethics complaint), it may be acceptable for you to draft your own response or represent yourself. If the potential consequences are serious, you probably shouldn’t handle the matter on your own.

Learn More about the California Bar Discipline Process for Lawyer Ethics Complaints

If you need to learn more about the California Bar discipline process, we have some resources that we know you’ll find helpful. If you’re interested in the “do it yourself” method, visit The Playbook. The Playbook is an online, interactive website that walks you through the entire process from the time the complaint is filed all the way through the appeals process. There’s also a copy of the ethics rules as well as commentary related to those rules.

If you’re looking for help in responding to the lawyer ethics complaint you received, schedule a consultation with Zavieh Law. We provide both limited and full scope representation of California lawyers. Don’t face the bar alone. Let us help you do everything possible to protect your practice!