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Complaints down, sanctions up, says Attorney Grievance Commission

Bar Counsel Lydia Lawless

Bar Counsel Lydia Lawless

The number of complaints filed against Maryland lawyers dropped for a second consecutive year and again hit a 10-year low in fiscal 2019, which ended June 30, the Attorney Grievance Commission stated in its recently released annual report.

However, the number of sanctioned attorneys rose to 77 in fiscal 2019, from 65 in fiscal 2018, the commission reported. The fiscal 2019 figure remains below the 10-year annual average of about 83 attorneys sanctioned, the report stated.

The comparative year-to-year statistics do not necessarily indicate a trend toward fewer complaints or increased sanctions against attorneys but should be regarded as annual snapshots, said Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless, the commission’s chief administrative prosecutor of wayward attorneys.

“I don’t think it necessarily means anything,” Lawless said of the numbers. “I’d like to believe it’s fewer attorneys engaged in misconduct, but I don’t know if it’s just fewer complaints being filed.”

According to the commission’s numbers, bar counsel received 1,657 complaints about lawyers in fiscal 2019, down from 1,802 the prior year. However, the number of complaints docketed for further investigation rose to 278, from 254 in fiscal 2018, the report stated.

The most common docketed complaint — alleged in 41 cases — involved accusations that the attorneys failed to safeguard client property. The next most common docketed complaint was the attorneys’ alleged failure to respond to bar counsel, which rose to 32 cases in fiscal 2019 from 17 the prior year.

Lawless called this near doubling surprising because attorneys can often stave off investigation by responding to her office’s inquiries regarding a complaint.

“Complaints that might have been screened out are docketed because the attorney failed to respond,” Lawless said.

The plurality of complaints about attorneys in fiscal 2019 came from Montgomery County, with 64, followed by Baltimore City, 48, and Prince George’s County, 43.

Caroline, Dorchester, Garrett, Queen Anne’s and Somerset counties were complaint-free in fiscal 2019, according to the report.

The most common docketed complaints involved civil litigation, which accounted for 55, followed by family law with 30. Civil litigation and family law also drew the most complaints in fiscal 2018.

The high ranking of complaints from civil litigation and family law cases is to be expected, as lawsuits – particularly those involving divorcing spouses and related familial issues — account for “the most high-conflict areas of practice,” Lawless said. “It makes sense that the most complaints come out of that.”

The commission reported that 26 attorneys were disbarred in fiscal 2019, the same number as the previous year. That figure is below the 10-year annual average of about 32 disbarments, according to the commission’s 44th annual report.

The most common reason for disciplinary action against an attorney in fiscal 2019 was lack of competence, diligence or client communication, followed by failure to maintain complete records, account for client funds, maintain trust accounts or safeguard funds, the commission reported.

In fiscal 2018, the most common reasons for disciplinary action involved either a criminal action by or conviction of the attorney, followed by dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, the commission added.

Wayward attorneys are administratively prosecuted by bar counsel but sanctioned by Maryland’s top court, the Court of Appeals.

The number of licensed attorneys in Maryland increased for the fifth straight year in fiscal 2019, to 40,393 from 40,300 in fiscal 2018, according to the commission.

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