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Disbarments dip, but number remains high

Attorney disbarments remained high the last fiscal year, despite falling slightly from the previous year’s historical peak.

The Court of Appeals disbarred 37 attorneys in fiscal year 2013, compared with 45 the previous year, according to the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland’s annual report for the fiscal year from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013.

Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman said he expects disbarment numbers to drop back down in upcoming years.

“I really can’t say why there have been a greater number of disbarments in the last couple years, but I believe they are outliers,” Grossman said.

Since June, there have been eight disbarments, about two a month, Grossman said. If that rate continues, annual disbarment levels would return to their normal range, which usually hover in the 20s.

Complaints filed against attorneys fell from 2,030 in the previous fiscal year to 1,948. This is below the 10-year average of about 2,053.

“The number of lawyers is going up and if we are getting fewer complaints, that is demonstrating a responsibility to ethical requirements,” Grossman said.

‘A human tragedy’

Melvin Hirshman, who served as bar counsel for 30 years before Grossman took over, agreed it was hard to attribute a reason to the high number of disbarments, since many cases work their way through the process over a period of time.

“I can’t tell how many of those may have been pending so I assume some of those may be carried over from prior years,” Hirshman said.

Attorney Irwin R. Kramer of Kramer & Connolly in Reisterstown, who represents attorneys in disciplinary cases, also said the reason behind the disbarment statistics was unclear.

“I think that’s a difficult question to answer,” Kramer said. “I would say that each number represents a human tragedy. It sometimes represents more than one human tragedy. What we really need to do is figure out is how to bring that number down.”

Kramer, however, suggested that the increase in disbarments could be attributed to the increasing number of active attorneys in the state, which rose from 36,597 the previous fiscal year to 37,290 in fiscal 2013. This continues a steady increase over the past 10 years, from 31,934 in fiscal 2004.

“If there is a larger pool, there are more people with greater opportunities to violate the rules of professional conduct and you’re going to see some increase per capita,” Kramer said.

The past two fiscal years have also seen a high number of attorneys disbarred by consent. In fiscal 2013 there were 21 attorneys disbarred by consent, and 22 in fiscal 2012. This is almost double the number of disbarments by consent in the three years before that, which each had 13.

Grossman and Hirshman said attorneys in certain cases choose this route when they know the allegations against them, like mismanaging client funds, will likely lead to disbarment or indefinite suspension. Attorneys will then choose to disbar by consent to start the period of rehabilitation sooner rather than later, Hirshman said.

“Or you may make up your mind not harm any further clients and decide you are going to get on with your life,” Hirshman said.

Others will choose to do this to avoid the court issuing an opinion detailing their wrongdoings.

Kramer said as the number of disbarments given by the Court of Appeals goes up, there is more motivation among attorneys with pending disciplinary actions to disbar by consent.

“That is a disturbing figure,” Kramer said. “ … Many attorneys faced with quit or be fired would rather quit.” Attorney suspensions in fiscal 2013 were also up, to 21 from 15 the previous year.

The total number of sanctioned attorneys (disbarments, suspensions, reprimands, etc.) dipped slightly, to 86 in fiscal 2013 from 93 in fiscal 2012.

Dip in complaints

Grossman attributed the dip in complaints to effective continuing legal education courses and to law schools stressing ethics in classes.

“I think the trend recently has been a reduction in the number of complaints,” Grossman said. “That is consistent nationally, but I think lawyers in Maryland are cognizant of ethical responsibilities. Between the outreach our office does and the emphasis on ethics in law schools, I think it’s now beginning to pay dividends.”

The drop in complaints, Hirshman said, has a lot to do with the economy. Solo attorneys draw many of the attorney sanctions, and in unstable economic times, fewer lawyers are deciding to go solo, Hirshman said.

“It costs money as far as rent, malpractice insurance, telephone, postage and what else have you,” Hirshman said. “I think more lawyers, to the extent they can, would like to hook on with a law firm or some other kind of practice.”

Kramer advocated putting more preliminary measures in place to prevent attorneys from getting to the point of disciplinary action in the first place.

“I see lawyers who want to do the right thing, but there is a gap in their practical education or simply being overwhelmed,” Kramer said. “That leads to honest mistakes, but these mistakes are not always punished as honest mistakes.”

The complaints docketed, those that the Attorney Grievance Commission chose to investigate, fell from 382 to 344 between fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2013. This is below the 10-year average of 402.

The most prevalent cause for disciplinary action in fiscal 2013 was attorneys failing to represent clients competently and diligently and failing to communicate with them. The Court of Appeals disbarred 27 attorneys for this reason in fiscal 2013.

Grossman Hirshman said this reason for sanctioning attorneys is standard in Maryland and across the country every year.

“I think lawyers probably are either lazy or they are somehow upset with the client because if you don’t communicate with a client you are obviously up to lose one,” Hirshman said. “As far as lack of diligence is concerned, I can’t understand that for the life of me.”

The second highest number of attorneys was sanctioned for misappropriation of client funds in fiscal 2013, followed by failure to maintain complete records.

Failure to maintain complete records was the most prevalent reason for disciplinary action in fiscal 2012, followed by failing to competently represent a client and a criminal act or conviction.

“Lawyers should know they should be communicating with clients,” Grossman said. “They should be diligent and competent in how they represent clients. The emphasis needs to be on the needs of clients.”

By the numbers … 

-The number of attorneys receiving disciplinary actions for criminal acts or convictions fell drastically, from 15 in fiscal 2012 to two in fiscal 2013.

-A slightly lower percentage of complaints were investigated compared to the number filed in fiscal 2013. The rate fell slightly from 18.8 percent in fiscal 2012 to 17.7 percent in fiscal 2013.

-For at least the second year in a row, the largest number of docketed complaints came from civil litigation matters, 64, in fiscal 2013. This was followed by family law matters.

-The most docketed complaints came from Baltimore County for the second year in a row at 63, followed by Montgomery County, 60; Baltimore, 53; Prince George’s County; 51, out of state, 37; Howard County, 25; Anne Arundel County, 16; and Harford County, 11.

-There are 374 complaints pending, down from fiscal 2012’s 391 pending cases. Of the cases pending in fiscal 2013, most have charges pending in court or are in peer review.