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Lawyers Helping Lawyers Avoid the Perils of Professional Discipline

Do Lawyer Lives Matter?

Q. As lawyers, we know that "all persons" should be treated equally under the law. Does that apply to "all lawyers" in the attorney grievance process?

A. Legally speaking, yes. In practice? I'm not so sure.

While concerns over equal protection and eliminating bias prompt us to keep careful statistics on other aspects of our justice system, we pay less attention to the system by which we regulate ourselves.

Many states, including my home state of Maryland, fail to keep – and certainly don't release – data on the race, gender, national origin or age of the lawyers they discipline. Lacking this sort of transparency, the confidentiality of individual cases makes it virtually impossible to assess the fairness of a process on which our careers may hinge.

Maybe we're afraid to look.

So far, only one state has dared to do so. In a "First of Its Kind Study on Racial Disparities in Attorney Discipline," the California Bar examined the likelihood that attorneys of different races, ethnicities and genders may face serious discipline. Looking at more than 100,000 lawyers for whom demographic data was available, the analysis found "statistically significant disparities" among sanctioned lawyers.

The widest gap existed between white male lawyers and their black counterparts. The study showed that black lawyers were three to four times more likely to be disbarred or to face other serious sanctions. Of these, the hardest hit were sole practitioners, who faced discipline more often than those in larger firms.

Without the data to back it up, I can't speak to other jurisdictions. But I doubt that California is alone.

Assuming that the white guys of Big Law are no more ethical than black solos, what accounts for the inequality?

Racism can't be ruled out on conjecture alone. But another possibility may be equally troubling for those who believe in equal justice under law. Despite our profession's continuing plea for greater access to justice, we often punish those who provide it. Returning to their communities to serve the under-served, minority lawyers may learn that no good deed goes unpunished. Forced to manage a high volume of "low bono" work to make less money than their large firm counterparts, these lawyers must juggle more cases with fewer staff and resources than those with a more affluent clientele. When I represent these lawyers, I'm often astonished by how little they charge and how much they do for free.

Yet these lawyers pay a heavy price even when their clients do not. On the front lines of client service, solo and small firm lawyers have little to insulate them from potential discipline. Unlike their colleagues at larger firms, they don't have a team of CPAs to manage their trust accounts, a cadre of associates and paralegals to catch mistakes, or a hierarchy of senior partners to whom angry clients may air their grievances. For these lawyers, the only real "complaint department" is the attorney grievance board.

Would disbarring them truly protect their clients, or would it thin the herd of the very lawyers who give them access to justice?

Rather than answer this question with data on the background of those we punish, disciplinary boards seem content to publish the raw number of lawyers they sanction from one year to the next.

Raw numbers are easier to ignore than people. Without the data behind these numbers, we may never know whether we are truly protecting the public, or are instead reducing their access to the only lawyers willing to help. If we truly believe that "all persons" should be treated equally, its time to take a closer look at how fairly we treat each other.

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Giving Thanks

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Attorney Grievance defense attorney specializes in defending lawyers in disciplinary proceedings before the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission and the D.C. Bar's Board on Professional Responsibility involving professional misconduct, legal ethics, disbarment, suspensions of law licenses, petitions for disciplinary action, reprimands and sanctions for unethical conduct. If you receive a letter from Bar Counsel Lydia Lawless, Disciplinary Counsel Hamilton Fox, or from any attorney disciplinary board in Maryland or the District of Columbia, retain experienced attorneys with expertise in lawyer discipline and breach of ethics cases to avoid sanctions for professional misconduct. We help lawyers avoid disbarment, suspension, reprimands, censure and informal admonitions by drafting responses to client grievances and ethical complaints; representing lawyers in peer reviews, evidentiary hearings, and oral arguments before the BPR and the Court of Appeals; filing petitions to reinstate an attorney's license to practice law; conducting law firm ethical compliance audits; and drafting legal ethics opinions to protect lawyers from ethics charges. In many cases, disciplinary proceedings may be dismissed, dismissed with a warning, or result in a conditional diversion agreement with Bar Counsel to rectify misconduct. Lawyers may need help in managing their law firm attorney escrow IOLTA trust account and complying with attorney trust accounting rules to avoid charges of ethical misconduct. Do not represent yourself in responding to an attorney grievance, law firm client complaint, or other allegation of ethical impropriety. Attorney grievance defense counsel may help you comply with legal ethics rules, avoid sanctions like suspension or disbarment, and avoid future attorney grievances.


By The Lawyer's Lawyers | Kramer & Connolly and Irwin R. Kramer who are responsible for the content of this informational website.   This website is designed for lawyers faced with attorney grievances. As cases do differ, past performance does not guarantee future results.