Lawyers and Their Obligation to Report Unethical Conduct

October 31, 2022
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

Lawyers who work with other lawyers, either on the same case or in a law firm, can find themselves in a difficult situation when they discover or suspect that the other lawyer has engaged in unethical conduct. If you find yourself in this position, however, your obligations can be somewhat unclear. A professional license defense attorney can help unpack the situation and provide guidance so that you can avoid any potential issues

Maryland Rule 19-308.3 – Reporting Professional Misconduct

As you are hopefully already aware, the Maryland Attorney’s Rules of Professional Conduct already require lawyers to report violations by another attorney. The rules states as follows: 

An attorney who knows that another attorney has committed a violation of the Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a substantial question as to that attorney’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as an attorney in other respects, shall inform the appropriate professional authority.

In reviewing the rule, two elements should be noted: 

  1. You must have knowledge that the other attorney committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct; and 
  2. It raises a substantial question as to their fitness as an attorney. 

While this seems straightforward, it can be less than clear when faced with a real-world situation. The obligation to report professional misconduct requires some judgment. A professional license defense attorney can help you work through the issue in order to determine whether you should report the conduct to the Bar. 

Is the Conduct a Violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct?

Whether or not the conduct should be reported should start with the question of whether the Rules of Professional Conduct have been violated. While the Rules cover almost everything an attorney does in their practice, you should first carefully consider this question. While the conduct in question may be distasteful, you do not have an obligation to report it unless they have arguably violated the Rules. 

What Do You Know? 

The next step in considering whether you should report the conduct is dependent upon what you actually know. Obviously, you cannot rely upon rumors or mere accusations. If it is an attorney in your firm, you should conduct an internal investigation in order to determine whether a violation has occurred. Along the way, you need to consider whether you can rely upon the attorney’s own version of the facts and what the independent evidence suggests. The situation is much more difficult if you suspect a lawyer outside of your firm has committed an ethical violation. Regardless, lawyers should be mindful that simply ignoring a possible ethical violation will not necessarily absolve you of your obligations under Rule 19-308.3. 

Determining whether a violation occurred is a difficult task. For guidance, we recommend working with a professional license defense attorney to determine whether a violation has occurred and whether it should be reported. 

Was the Violation Substantial? 

Under Rule 19-308.3, you arguably do not have an obligation to report misconduct unless it was substantial. The comments to the rule state that a lawyer’s obligation to report misconduct is limited to “those offenses that a self-regulating profession must vigorously endeavor to prevent.” The comments go on to note that “substantial refers to the seriousness of the possible offense and not the quantum of evidence of which the attorney is aware.” 

In other words, the obligation to report a violation applies only to misconduct that is significant in nature. This requires some judgment, which is where the answer to your particular situation becomes unclear. That said, lawyers should keep in mind that a failure to report misconduct could expose them to disciplinary action. 

So What Do I Do? 

Obviously, for lawyers you work with, you want to avoid the appearance that you are complicit in the misconduct in any way. For lawyers outside of your firm, you don’t want to impugn their character, of course. You need to balance these concerns against your ethical obligations and the need to protect the public that you are charged with serving. In some situations, the answer may be obvious, while in others it is less than clear. If you are unsure as to what to do, a professional license defense lawyer can provide you with the guidance you need and protect you from potential professional consequences. 

Contact Professional License Defense Attorney J.W. Stafford for Help

The decision to report a fellow lawyer for professional misconduct is not an easy one. Fortunately, you do not have to make this decision on your own. Contact the Law Firm of J.W. Stafford to discuss your situation and how we can help. Call us today at 410-514-6099.