COVID-19 -inspired concern for personal safety and greater use of email during the pandemic last spring might have contributed to fewer complaints being filed against Maryland attorneys and fewer lawyers failing to respond to bar counsel in fiscal 2020 — which ended June 30 — compared to the prior year, Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless said Tuesday.
Lawless noted complaints declined and responsiveness to her notices to attorneys rose between April and June, which corresponded to the first three months of public advisories informing people they are safer at home and urging them to work remotely to stanch the viral spread.
As a result, the number of complaints filed against Maryland lawyers dropped for a third consecutive year – to 1,599 from 1,657 — and hit a 10-year low in fiscal 2020, according to the Attorney Grievance Commission’s recently released annual report. Allegations of failure to respond to bar counsel dropped to 19 docketed complaints in fiscal 2020, from 32 the year before, the commission stated.
Lawless declined to speculate on why the pandemic might be linked to fewer complaints but said the attorneys’ greater responsiveness could be attributed to her office’s pandemic-compelled and heightened use of email – rather than postal mail – to notify lawyers of potential ethical concerns.
“People tend to be more responsive and respond more quickly” to email than to a posted letter, which had been the Office of Bar Counsel’s standard operating procedure, said Lawless, the grievance commission’s chief administrative prosecutor of wayward attorneys.
“It (email) is proving itself to be more efficient and we’ll continue this practice post-COVID,” she added.
Lawless also praised attorneys for complying with their ethical obligation to be responsive to their client’s questions and concerns and keep them apprised of legal proceedings amid the communication challenges wrought by the public health emergency.
“I have only seen a small handful of complaints that are in any way related” to a lawyer’s failure to communicate with a client, Lawless said. “I have been pleased to see how few complaints we’ve seen.”
Though the overall number of complaints against attorneys fell in fiscal 2020, the number of cases docketed for further investigation rose to 285, from 278 in fiscal 2019, the commission stated in its annual report.
The most common docketed complaint — alleged in 45 cases — again involved accusations that the attorneys failed to safeguard client property. The next most common docketed complaint was lack of diligence, which rose to 28 cases in fiscal 2020 from 25 the prior year.
According to the report, the number of sanctioned attorneys fell by one – to 76 in fiscal 2020 from 77 in fiscal 2019. The fiscal 2020 figure remains below the 10-year annual average of about 83 attorneys sanctioned, the report stated.
The plurality of docketed complaints about attorneys in fiscal 2020 came from Montgomery County, with 57, followed by Baltimore City, 55, and Prince George’s County, 42.
Allegany, Caroline, Charles, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s, Somerset and Talbot counties had no docketed complaints in fiscal 2020, according to the report.
The most common docketed complaints involved civil litigation, which accounted for 56, followed by criminal defense with 27. Civil litigation also drew the most complaints in fiscal 2019.
The commission reported that 28 attorneys were disbarred in fiscal 2020, compared to 26 the previous year. Those figures are below the 10-year annual average of about 32 disbarments, according to the commission’s 45th annual report.
The most common reason for disciplinary action against an attorney in fiscal 2020 was failure to maintain complete records, account for client funds, maintain trust accounts or safeguard funds. That was followed by lack of competence, diligence or communication or failure to abide by client’s decisions, the commission reported.
Following prosecution by bar counsel, wayward attorneys are sanctioned by Maryland’s top court, the Court of Appeals.
The number of licensed attorneys in Maryland increased for the sixth straight year in fiscal 2020, to 41,177, from 40,393 in fiscal 2019, according to the commission.