Maryland Attorney License Defense Lawyer Handling Grievance Commission Proceedings
What Types of Disciplinary Issues do Maryland Attorneys Face?
There are approximately 40,000 licensed attorneys in the State of Maryland. Each year about 2,000 complaints are received by the Attorney Grievance Commission against these lawyers. A complaint can be filed by anyone – a dissatisfied client, a judge, or even another attorney.
Unfortunately, these complaints – many of which are often unjustified – can ruin an attorney's reputation. When so much is at stake, it is imperative to seek the help of a Maryland attorney license defense lawyer.
Remember, as a licensed attorney, you have the right to have your own counsel represent you at all stages of the Attorney Grievance Commission process. At the Law Firm of J.W. Stafford, L.L.C., we can assist you in preparing an initial response to a Bar Counsel inquiry, negotiating a CDA or reprimand with the Commission, and, when circumstances warrant it, defending you before the Court of Appeals on formal charges.
All complaints are screened by Bar Counsel, a special attorney who works for the Commission. If Bar Counsel concludes there is reason to believe that an attorney may have violated the Maryland Attorneys' Rules of Professional Conduct (MARPC), a formal investigation will be opened. An investigation does not necessarily mean that the attorney will be sanctioned or disciplined. In many cases, Bar Counsel will simply request the attorney provide a written response to the complaint. If Bar Counsel is satisfied with the attorney's response, the file may be closed without taking any further action.
The overwhelming majority of complaints with the Attorney Grievance Commission are never formally docketed. Only about 300 of the estimated 2,000 complaints received in a given year will require any further investigation. Even then, Bar Counsel and the Commission ultimately may determine the attorney has not violated the MARPC and no disciplinary action is warranted.
When the Commission does decide to impose discipline, it commonly does so for one or more of the following reasons:
- The attorney failed to maintain complete records of a client's case;
- The attorney did not properly account for any client or third-party funds in their possession;
- The attorney engaged in acts of “dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation”;
- The attorney improperly co-mingled personal and client funds, rather than placing the latter in a properly managed IOLTA account;
- The Commission concludes the attorney failed to provide a client with competent representation;
- The attorney failed to properly communicate necessary information to a client or failed to honor a client's decisions or instructions;
- The attorney engaged in misconduct that was “prejudicial to the administration of justice”;
- The attorney engaged in misconduct that resulted in criminal prosecution or conviction;
- The attorney or someone under their supervision engaged in “unauthorized practice of law”;
- The attorney failed in performing any ethical duties owed to a client following the termination of representation–or after declining to represent a potential client;
- The attorney failed to disclose a conflict of interest;
- The attorney engaged in false or misleading advertising in connection with the solicitation of clients;
- The Commission believes the attorney is physically or mentally incapacitated and therefore no longer competent to practice law;
- The attorney charged a client an “excessive,” improper, or illegal fee; or
- The attorney failed to respond to Bar Counsel, the Commission, or any other agency conducting an official investigation.
Conditional Diversion Agreements, Reprimands, Statements of Charges, and Petitions for Disciplinary or Remedial Action
If Bar Counsel does believe that an attorney has committed an ethical violation, the Attorney Grievance Commission can take a number of steps in response. One option is for the attorney and the Commission to voluntarily enter into a Conditional Diversion Agreement (CDA). This remedy is available for minor infractions that do not implicate the attorney's dishonesty or involve misconduct that might pose a threat to the general public. One of the more common uses of CDAs is to help an attorney suffering from drug or alcohol addiction obtain treatment without losing his or her license to practice law.
The actual CDA is confidential, which means its terms will not be publicly disclosed unless the attorney violates its terms and the Commission revokes the deal. In past cases where we have seen CDAs, an attorney is normally required to undergo a period of appropriate addiction treatment or mental health counseling, apologize to any affected clients, and submit to periodic monitoring by another lawyer appointed by Bar Counsel.
When Bar Counsel is unwilling or unable to offer a CDA, its other options include recommending a reprimand, a formal Statement of Charges, or in the most serious cases a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action. A reprimand is usually entered with the consent of the attorney and constitutes a final action closing the underlying complaint.
A Statement of Charges indicates Bar Counsel does not wish to immediately proceed to a full-scale disciplinary hearing. Instead, a Statement of Charges triggers the appointment of a Peer Review Panel. This is a group of at least two attorneys and one non-attorney who will review any evidence submitted by both Bar Counsel and the accused lawyer. The Peer Review Panel will then determine if there is a “substantial basis indicating the need for some remedy.” The Panel does not have the authority to impose discipline, however, but rather is there to recommend voluntary measures the attorney may take to “remedy any deficiencies on his or her part” that led to the original complaint. In fact, after undergoing the peer review process, Bar Counsel and the attorney may agree to either a CDA or a reprimand.
Defending Your Law License in Court
Unfortunately, there are attorney complaints that simply cannot be resolved through a reprimand, a CDA, or peer review. When the Attorney Grievance Commission concludes that it has sufficient evidence to justify sanctions more serious than a reprimand, it can file a Petition seeking formal discipline. Unlike the more private and informal measures described above, a Petition is a public complaint filed with the Maryland Court of Appeals, which, as the state's highest court, supervises the practice of law.
The Court of Appeals will typically designate a Maryland Circuit Court judge to serve as a hearing officer. The circuit judge will then hold a formal hearing. Such hearings are conducted under the “clear and convincing” standard of proof, which is less strict than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” requirement in criminal proceedings but more stringent than the “preponderance of the evidence” rule used in most civil trials.
After hearing all of the evidence, the circuit judge will issue proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Either the attorney or the Commission may then file objections or “exceptions” to the circuit judge's recommendations. The Court of Appeals then has the final say. While the Court of Appeals will generally accept the circuit judge's findings of fact, unless they are “clearly erroneous,” the higher court is free to adopt its own conclusions of law.
The actual penalties the Court of Appeals may impose encompass a reprimand, disbarment, moving the attorney to “inactive” status, or suspending their license for a period of between 30 days and one year.
Remember, as a licensed attorney, you have the right to have your own counsel represent you at all stages of the Attorney Grievance Commission process. At the Law Firm of J.W. Stafford, L.L.C., we can assist you in preparing an initial response to a Bar Counsel inquiry, negotiating a CDA or reprimand with the Commission, and, when circumstances warrant it, defending you before the Court of Appeals on formal charges. You should never feel as if the legal system is being unfairly turned against you, and our experienced trial team will make sure that is not the case with your grievance proceeding.
Helping Clients Gain Admission to the Maryland Bar
Beyond handling grievances against licensed attorneys, the Law Firm of J.W. Stafford, L.L.C., also can assist you with challenges in applying for admission to the Maryland Bar. In addition to educational and testing requirements, the Maryland State Board of Law Examiners may also investigate the “character and fitness” of any person seeking to practice law. Specifically, the Board's Character Committee may conduct personal interviews of an applicant for admission, verify any information provided in connection with the application, and, based on its review, make a final recommendation to the Board.
When the Character Committee believes there are grounds for denying an application for admission, the applicant has the right to a formal hearing. As with a grievance proceeding, the applicant may be represented by counsel. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that unlike a disciplinary case against a licensed attorney, in a fitness and character hearing, the burden of proof is on the applicant, not the Board, to prove they have “good moral character” and are fit to practice law. This means, for instance, that any failure to answer the Committee's questions may be cited as grounds for denying admission to the Bar.
Contact a Maryland Attorney License Defense Lawyer at The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford, LLC Today
As a member of the legal community, you understand better than most the importance of following the rules. As you work hard to manage your own practice or prepare for the Bar exam, you may need your own attorney to help guide you through the system that regulates the legal profession. Whether you are facing a formal disciplinary petition or need help managing your IOLTA accounts, Attorney Jamaal (“Jay”) W. Stafford and his knowledgeable professional licensing legal team can provide you with first-rate representation. Call the Law Firm of J.W. Stafford, L.L.C., today at 410-514-6099 or contact us online to schedule a confidential initial consultation with a Maryland attorney license defense lawyer so we can review your situation and help devise a strategy on how to proceed.