To read the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission’s most recent annual report, one might conclude that the state’s lawyers are getting along better with their clients and communicating more.
The commission received 1,885 complaints alleging attorney misconduct in fiscal year 2009 — the fewest complaints the commission has received in a fiscal year since it received 1,870 complaints in 2001, according to AGC’s 34th Annual Report. The panel also experienced a year-to-year, 59 percent drop in the number of client complaints alleging inattentive attorneys that warranted investigation by bar counsel, the commission’s chief prosecutor.
But Bar Counsel Melvin Hirshman said the report’s “rosy” data on fiscal 2009, which ended June 30, has been undercut by the most recent six months. Since July 1, docketed complaints — those warranting investigation — are again on the rise, surpassing by about 10 percent the number brought to the commission during the same six-month period last year, he said.
“Things seem to be running substantially heavier,” said Hirshman, who added he could not explain a reason for the recent surge.
Hirshman has announced he will retire as bar counsel on June 30. That will be the last day of the current fiscal year — whose first half he has called complaint-filled — and the cutoff date for the commission’s next annual report.
“Hopefully by June 30th of 2010, things will be rosy again,” Hirshman said.
The commission, in its most recent report, said the total number of client complaints warranting misconduct investigations dropped to 353 in fiscal 2009, from 406 in fiscal 2008.
Hirshman credited the 13 percent decline to law school ethics classes, a mandatory professionalism course for all new Maryland lawyers and educational programs offered by local bar groups. These efforts at promoting professionalism “have helped the bar to stay honest,” he said.
In its report, the commission called encouraging the decline in docketed investigations of attorneys for an alleged lack of diligence, including the failure to communicate adequately with clients.
“This dramatic decrease from a total of 91 last fiscal year to 37 in the report’s fiscal year suggests that attorneys are doing a better job communicating with their clients in a regular and timely manner,” the commission stated.
The panel also reported that docketed complaints alleging dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation fell to 40 in fiscal 2009 from 47 in fiscal 2008.
But docketed complaints about fees nearly doubled, to 21 in fiscal 2009 from 11 in fiscal 2008. Also on the rise were docketed complaints alleging criminal conduct, which climbed to 20 from 15, and failure to keep property safe, which increased to 45 from 43.
When divided geographically, the number of docketed complaints hits double digits for attorneys in six counties and Baltimore City. Montgomery County accounted for 71 of the docketed complaints, followed by Baltimore County, 60; Prince George’s County, 53; Baltimore City, 52; Anne Arundel County, 24; and Harford and Howard counties, with 12 each.
No complaints were assigned for investigation against attorneys in Caroline, Garrett, Somerset and Talbot counties in fiscal 2009, according to the report.
Five lawyers were disbarred in fiscal 2009, well below the annual average of 11 disbarments over the past 10 years. Another 13 attorneys were disbarred by consent, which is above the annual average of 11 over the past decade, the commission reported.
Meanwhile, the number of active Maryland lawyers continued its annual rise, reaching 34,569 at the end of fiscal 2009. That figure represents an increase of 1,169 from the prior year and of 5,403 since fiscal 2000, according to the commission.