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Complaints to Md. bar counsel at 10-year low, annual report finds

Bar Counsel Lydia Lawless

Bar Counsel Lydia Lawless

Fewer people filed complaints against Maryland attorneys in fiscal 2018 than they have in the past decade, according to the latest Attorney Grievance Commission annual report.

In the last fiscal year, bar counsel received 1,802 complaints, down from 2,061, of which 254 were docketed for further investigation, also a slight decrease from the previous fiscal year, the report states.

The number of sanctioned attorneys was also below the 10-year average, with 65 attorneys receiving sanctions, down from 93 in fiscal 2017 and below the 10-year average of 82, the report found.

Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless does not draw any conclusions from the decrease in complaints and sanctions.

“Typically there are no trends in the statistics, and number of complaints fluctuates year to year,” Lawless said Monday, adding that it’s difficult to identify the cause for this year’s decrease other than to be optimistic that more attorneys are “adhering to the rules of professional conduct.”

The number of licensed attorneys in Maryland increased slightly in fiscal 2018 to 40,300 up from 39,890 the prior fiscal year, the report states. That means less than 15 percent of licensed attorneys in the state had a complaint filed against them in the last fiscal year, and less than 1 percent of attorneys had a docketed complaint.

The vast number of cases that don’t make it past the initial inquiry stage highlights the importance for attorneys to send timely and complete responses to bar counsel’s office, Lawless said.

“If we don’t get responses from attorneys then they’re docketed for further investigation,” Lawless said.

Some 48 docketed complaints were in civil litigation, the highest of any practice area. When organized by locale, Montgomery County drew the highest number of docketed complaints, the report states.

The Attorney Grievance Commission approved nine conditional diversion agreements last year. Those arrangements are typically reserved for attorneys who have not received prior complaints and are tailored to the attorney’s needs while recognized the harm inflicted upon the complainant. Conditions may include apologizing to the complainant, attending educational seminars, getting legal malpractice insurance, hiring an accountant to learn proper bookkeeping practices, or receiving psychiatric and psychological treatment, among others, the report states.

If one trend can be gleaned from this year’s report in comparison to the past decade, it’s the increase in conservatorships, Lawless said. Bar counsel’s office establishes and handles conservatorships of client files and accounts for deceased or disbarred attorneys or for lawyers who stopped practicing suddenly for other reasons.

This year, bar counsel’s office established 10 new conservatorships, up from five in fiscal 2017. The report calls this increase “substantial.” The office closed 10 conservatorships, and 34 remained open at the end of the fiscal year, the report states.

“It just reinforces that attorneys should be encouraged to develop succession plans,” Lawless said.

The most common reason for disciplinary action in fiscal 2018 was misconduct related to a criminal action or conviction, followed by misconduct related to dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation, the report states.

The number of sanctions related to lack of communication was down significantly this year with three cases facing disciplinary action compared to 18 in fiscal 2017, the report states. Lawless advised attorneys to communicate with their clients in a timely manner, especially when something unforeseen or unexpected comes up in a case.

“Many complaints include allegations of lack of diligence, but really they’re saying ‘the attorney didn’t communicate with me about what was happening and why,’” Lawless said.

Attorney Sanctions
Fiscal Year 2009 FY 2010 FY 2011 FY 2012 FY 2013 FY 2014 FY 2015 FY 2016 FY 2017 FY 2018
Disbarment 5 15 11 23 16 18 20 16 14 14
Disbarment by consent 13 13 13 22 21 8 24 13 19 12
Suspension 18 13 8 15 21 29 33 18 31 20
Interim suspension 1 0 1 0 3 4 2 2 3 3
Public reprimand by court 6 4 6 7 5 9 8 3 4 4
Public reprimand by commission 20 31 27 26 23 19 24 26 22 12
Other sanctions* 22 22 19 11 24 33 22 22 25 29
Total 85 98 85 104 113 121 133 100 118 94
Source: Attorney Grievance Commission Fiscal 2018 annual report

 


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