HALT, and organization which runs The Lawyer Accountability Project, works to make lawyers more responsive to the needs of legal consumers and to empower legal consumers to protect themselves from negligent, unscrupulous and incompetent attorneys. The Lawyer Accountability Project advocates increased public regulation and less leniency, secrecy and delay in the attorney discipline system, fee dispute mediation structure and client protection programs.
HALT has just issued their 2006 Lawyer Discipline Report Card. Pennsylvania ranks a “C” grade, like the majority of states. None rank an “A”. Only Utah ranks an “F”.
You may wonder what this has to do with you in your every day life as an attorney. Believe me, it impacts you in very real ways. Start with the poor perception of attorneys held by prospective clients and the general public. Lawyers suffer for this low esteem. They have even be publicly maligned on billboards and in TV advertisements by other associations.
Our state bar association attempts to respond with advertising campaigns, public service campaigns and so forth. The recent member survey conducted by the PBA clearly indicates you believe the bar association must take an even more active role in helping to change the negative perceptions of lawyers held by the general public.
Here are just some of the two pages of startling statistics found in a white paper on the HALT web site:
–A Columbia Law School nationwide survey found that two out of three Americans do not think lawyers are even “somewhat honest.”
–A 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 84% of Americans do not believe lawyers have “high ethical standards.”
–According to the National Law Journal, 69% of Americans think that lawyers are more focused on making money than serving their clients.
–According to the American Bar Association, in 2002 there were 121,000 complaints filed against the nation’s 1.2 million lawyers. Of these, only 3.5 percent led to formal discipline and just one percent resulted in disbarment. A whopping 96.5 percent led to no discipline or only informal slaps on the wrist in the form of “private sanctions.”
Of course, we know a lot of complaints are made that are totally lacking in merit. But let’s look closely at these statistics, folks. I must admit that when I read the listing of discipline carried out in PA, and look at 1) how long it takes for a decision to be made; and 2) how light the punishment is related to the infraction, I am stymied. But apparently it could be much worse — like in Utah, for example.
Nonetheless, when is the last time you actually read the disciplinary listings? Aren’t you a little shocked that lawyers who purposely misappropriate client trust funds — we’re not talking accident — are often given just a suspension of one or two years, or a reprimand? It certainly explains a lot about public perception.
Another real impact this has on you is in your partnership agreement. I recently assisted a client with the drafting of their first partnership agreement. We had to spend a considerable amount of time contemplating the “worst case” scenario, e.g. how does one go about expelling a partner, and for what.
Typically, a partner must engage in illegal conduct or a â€œsignificantâ€ violation of the R.P.C. , or be seriously impaired, in order to be expelled by his/her partners.
The R.P.C. violation is very important to deal with properly, especially because the Disciplinary Board can take a very long time to come up with a final disposition, in which case your firm can be left waiting for one or two years for their finding, and then debating whether it is significant or not. I suggested that the firm include language that says something like â€œdeemed to be significant in the sole interpretation and opinion of the remaining partners, regardless of any final determination of the D-Board.â€ Aside from the fact that it can take, literally, a few years for a final determination from the D-Board, they are more often that not more lenient that you would want to be toward your fellow partner.
It feels strange, as an advocate of the legal industry who has spent almost 30 years assisting lawyers in running the business side of their firms, to shine a spotlight on this potential failing — the self-regulated disciplinary system of the bar. I also agree with those who think lawyer advertising has a lot to do with the contempt held toward lawyers. And although the vast majority of lawyers comport themselves in a totally ethical, professional, and business-like fashion, the actions of a few reflect ill on the majority. But hey, it could be worse. We could be from Utah!