The relationship between Maryland lawyers and their clients apparently has soured in the past 18 months.
Lawyers allegedly have been communicating less with their clients, dipping into client escrow funds more and engaging in more dishonesty, according to a report the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission released last week.
The AGC said it received 2,003 complaints alleging attorney misconduct in fiscal year 2010, which ran from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010. The figure was in line with the annual average number of complaints over the past 10 years, but up from 1,885 — an eight-year low — in fiscal 2009.
Also on the rise in fiscal 2010 was the number of “docketed” client complaints, those warranting misconduct investigations. This figure climbed to 406 from 353 in fiscal 2009, the AGC stated in its 35th annual fiscal year report.
And there has been no letup in complaints in the six months since fiscal 2010 ended.
“The trend upwards is continuing,” said Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman, the AGC’s chief investigator and prosecutor. “I expect [in fiscal 2011] that we will exceed the number of complaints we had in fiscal 2010.”
Fueling the increase from fiscal 2009 was a nearly 150 percent boost in the number of docketed complaints alleging lack of communication from attorneys, the report stated. Also on the rise were complaints that attorneys were not keeping client property safe, which climbed about 67 percent, and being dishonest, which grew nearly 38 percent.
The report stated that the “difficult economy” might have caused the increase in complaints filed and docketed against attorneys, but Grossman is skeptical.
“I don’t know if I agree with that,” he said. “But I don’t have a better explanation.”
The fiscal 2010 report covered the final year of Melvin Hirshman’s nearly three-decade tenure as Bar Counsel.
Hirshman, Grossman’s immediate predecessor, did attribute the increase in complaints — particularly with regard to safekeeping client property — to a poor economy.
With their own bills to pay, attorneys may be tempted to dip into their client’s escrow fund — a clear violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct — with the intention to replenish the account once they are able, said Hirshman. But, often, they are unable to repay.
“Lawyers as a group are affected the same way as any other group in the economy,” said Hirshman, whose last day was June 30. “They have monetary worries of their own.”
But an economic downturn is never an excuse for borrowing from the escrow account, Hirshman added.
“What doesn’t belong to them [attorneys] should not be touched,” he said.
As for communication, Hirshman said, attorneys must respond to their clients’ telephone, cell phone, e-mail or faxed messages, even if the lawyers are busy with other cases or have no new information to tell their clients.
“It’s the client’s case,” Hirshman said. “They are entitled to know what’s going on.”
The increase in complaints should serve as a warning to attorneys to be ever more diligent, Hirshman said.
“Clients, of course, are much more sophisticated,” he said. “They are generally on top of, in the main, what their lawyer is or is not doing. They really want to know what’s going on.”
The commission reported that 27 complaints alleging lack of communication were docketed in fiscal 2010, up from 11 in fiscal 2009. In fiscal 2010, docketed complaints alleging a failure to keep client property safe climbed to 75 from 45 in fiscal 2009, and docketed claims of dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation increased to 55 from 40.
By contrast, the number of docketed complaints about fees dropped to 15 in fiscal 2010 from 21 in fiscal 2009. The number of docketed complaints alleging criminal conduct fell to 14 from 20, the AGC stated.
The commission also reported the following:
-Fifteen lawyers were disbarred in fiscal 2010, well above the annual average of 11.6 disbarments over the past 10 years and the highest number since fiscal 2004, when 22 attorneys were stripped of their license. Another 13 lawyers were disbarred by consent in fiscal 2010, which is above the annual average of 11.2 over the past decade but the same number as in fiscal 2009.
-The number of active Maryland lawyers fell to 34,506 at the end of fiscal 2010 from 34,569 the previous year. The decline in bar membership reversed what had been at least a 12-year upward trend.
-When divided geographically, the number of docketed complaints hit double digits for attorneys in seven counties and Baltimore City in fiscal 2010. Montgomery County accounted for 92 of the docketed complaints, followed by Prince George’s County, 62; Baltimore City, 60; Baltimore County, 50; Charles County, 18; Anne Arundel County, 17; Howard County, 16; and Calvert County, 12.
-No complaints were assigned for investigation against attorneys in Caroline, Garrett, Kent, Queen Anne, Somerset and Wicomico counties in fiscal 2010.