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Disbarments, complaints against Maryland lawyers hit years-old lows, panel finds

The number of attorneys with ethical complaints registered against them hit a 20-year low for fiscal year 2021. But the number of attorneys receiving any sanction actually increased from the prior year. Maryland Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless says that some of that had to do with the decrease in judicial activity because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The number of Maryland attorneys hit with an ethical complaint registered a 20-year low in fiscal year 2021 and the number of lawyers disbarred was the lowest in a dozen years in FY2021, which ended June 30, the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission has reported.

The 1,433 complaints lodged with the commission in FY2021 continued a four-year downward trend and was the lowest figure since 1,410 complaints against attorneys were received in FY2001.

The 21 attorneys either stripped of their licenses by Maryland’s top court or who consented to disbarment in FY2021 marked the lowest number of defrocked lawyers since FY2009, when 18 were disbarred, based on data in the commission’s recently released annual report and its predecessors.

Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless attributed some of the decline in complaints against attorneys to the postponement of jury trials — and the resulting decrease in legal activity — last fall and winter to stanch the spread of COVID-19.

The court closings, however, “did not have a significant impact” on her office’s handling of complaints, which do not involve jury trials, said Lawless, the commission’s chief administrative prosecutor.

The total number of attorneys receiving any sanction — from public reprimand to disbarment – was 81 in FY2021, up from 76 the prior year, the commission reported.

The most common violation among sanctioned attorneys pertained to competence, diligence, communication or failure to abide by their clients’ decisions, which was cited in 19 of the 81 cases. Other common violations involved failure to maintain complete records (cited in 11 cases), misappropriation of client funds (10 cases) or misconduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation (also 10 cases).

According to the commission’s report, 196 cases were deemed worthy of further investigation in FY2021, compared to 285 such “docketed” cases the prior year.

The most common docketed complaint — alleged in 32 cases — involved allegations that the attorney failed to safeguard client property. The next most common docketed complaints were that the lawyer lacked diligence or communication, a perennial stumbling block for attorneys that could have been exacerbated when courts were closed but was not, Lawless said in praising her fellow lawyers.

“During the pandemic it’s even more important to ensure that attorneys are communicating with their clients” because the clients’ anxiety level might be greater and the usual opportunities to meet at the courthouse fewer, Lawless said. “I have been really impressed with how members of the bar have come together to support their clients and the judiciary through the pandemic.”

According to the FY2021 report, civil litigation led to the most docketed complaints, 26, followed by family law cases, which led to 24. Civil litigation also drew the most complaints in FY2020.

The plurality of docketed complaints about attorneys in FY2021 came from Montgomery County, with 38; followed by Baltimore City, 33; and Baltimore County and Prince George’s County, with 30 each.

Calvert, Cecil, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s, Somerset and Worcester counties had no docketed complaints in fiscal 2021, according to the commission’s report.

Ethical complaints are administratively prosecuted by bar counsel. Sanctions are handed down by Maryland’s top court, the Court of Appeals.

The number of licensed attorneys in Maryland increased for the seventh straight year in FY2021 — to 41,611 from 41,177 in FY2020, the commission stated in its 46th annual report.