Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Attorney sanctions fell last year despite rise in number of lawyers

Attorney sanctions fell last year despite rise in number of lawyers

Listen to this article
Glenn Grossman, Bar Counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission. (File)
Glenn Grossman, Bar Counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission. (File)

The number of Maryland attorneys who received disciplinary sanctions during the last fiscal year fell to average levels after surging in fiscal 2015, according to the Attorney Grievance Commission.

After the number of disbarred attorneys rose almost 70 percent from fiscal 2014 to 2015, that figure fell 34 percent last year, to 29 lawyers, according to the commission’s recently released annual report. The 29 lawyers closely aligns with the 10-year average of 28.9 lawyers disbarred annually, despite the number of active attorneys in admitted to practice law in Maryland continuing to increase.

“The numbers are obviously closer to the average over the last ten years than last year was,” said Glenn Grossman, Bar Counsel for the commission. “My takeaway is that it’s too early to suggest that there’s a trend one way or the other. In other jurisdictions, there has been a decline in the number of complaints, but I can’t say for certain whether that’s going to present a trend.”

Forty-four attorneys were disbarred in fiscal 2015, only one fewer than the historic high of 45 disbarments in fiscal 2012. Since June 30, when the period covered by the latest report ended, the Court of Appeals has disbarred four attorneys by per curiam order, according to court records.

“I wouldn’t say yet that there is a trend one way or the other with respect to the numbers,” Grossman said. “I expect that the number of disbarments will be more [in the next report] than they were last year, but it’s very hard to say if it’s going to be a lot more or just a few more.”

The decline in sanctions last fiscal year wasn’t limited to disbarments: fewer attorneys received suspensions and reprimands

Twenty attorneys were suspended, either indefinitely or for a set period of time, in fiscal 2016, compared to 35 the previous year. The number of attorneys who received reprimands also dropped, from 32 to 29.

While Grossman said he wouldn’t directly attribute the decline in attorney sanctions last year to the corresponding drop in complaints — the commission received 1,716 complaints and docketed 339 of them in fiscal 2016, compared to 1,969 received and 330 docketed in 2015 — he noted the number of sanctions has decreased as the number of active attorneys barred in Maryland rose to 39,814 by June 30.

“I take it as a good sign, but I’m unwilling to suggest that we’ve started a trend,” he said.

Four rules

The areas of practice that most commonly led to docketed complaints last year were civil litigation and family law, according to the report. The locales most frequently named as the source of complaints were Montgomery County, with 73 complaints, and Baltimore city, with 67. No complaints about the actions of attorneys in Caroline, Calvert, Queen Anne’s or Somerset counties were docketed by the commission for investigation last year.

While the attorney disciplinary cases that get the most attention might be those involving flagrant ethical violations, such as theft, the reality is that most complaints stem from elements of the Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct regarding an attorney’s duty to be diligent in handling a client’s case and property, Grossman said.

“There are four rules which provide basically half the complaints we get, and they are competence, communication, diligence and safekeeping of property,” he said. “Take those four rules, and that’s half our caseload.”

This held true last fiscal year, with the most common primary rule violation being the requirement that attorneys handle cases competently, keep clients updated on the status of their cases and abide by clients’ wishes. The number of cases in which the primary violation related to dishonesty or fraud dropped by more than half, from 21 to nine, and the number in which the primary violation was related to an attorney’s criminal act or conviction dropped from 13 to eight.

Attorney Sanctions
Fiscal year 2007 FY 2008 FY 2009 FY 2010 FY 2011 FY 2012 FY 2013 FY 2014 FY 2015 FY 2016
Disbarment 9 11 5 15 11 23 16 18 20 16
Disbarment by consent 8 10 13 13 13 22 21 8 24 13
Suspension 20 24 18 13 8 15 21 29 33 18
Interim suspension 1 0 1 0 1 0 3 4 2 2
Public reprimand by court 3 9 6 4 6 7 5 9 8 3
Public reprimand by commission 16 12 20 31 27 26 23 19 24 26
Total 57 66 63 76 66 93 89 87 111 78

Networking Calendar

Submit an entry for the business calendar