What To Do If You Have an Ethics Complaint

I just received a notice of complaint from the Board of Professional Responsibility. What do I do?

When you sort through your mail each day, you are hoping to find envelopes containing checks from happy clients who wish to pay you well for your excellent services. But what happens when you see the envelope with the return address from the Board of Professional Responsibility? Your hands begin to shake and you become instantly terrified. You open the envelope and find a notice that a complaint has been lodged against you with Board. What do you do?

1. Don’t panic. You have merely been put on notice that a complaint has been filed. There has been no finding that you did anything wrong, and you will have the opportunity to present your side of the matter.  According to the 32nd Annual Discipline Report  for Fiscal Year July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013, 41% of complaints/formal proceedings filed during that fiscal year were dismissed as frivolous, and an additional 43% were dismissed after investigation.  Only 3% of complaints/formal proceedings resulted in a public censure, and only 2% of complaints/formal proceedings resulted in suspension.  

2. Contact your malpractice insurance carrier immediately. There is a chance that your policy will provide funding for legal counsel to defend your complaint.  Additionally, your policy may require that you notify your carrier immediately if you receive a notice of complaint from the BPR.  For more information about utilizing malpractice insurance in BPR complaint defense, see the article by Brian S. Faughnan and published  in the Tennessee Bar Journal titled Malpractice Policy Coverage for Disciplinary Defense Costs.

3. Contact a reputable attorney who regularly represents attorneys before the BPR. Their guidance with your initial response can be invaluable. Remember the old adage about a lawyer who represents him/herself having a fool for a client.

4. Review Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9 (Disciplinary Enforcement). You may also familiarize yourself with the Policies and Procedures of the BPR.

5. DO NOT IGNORE THE NOTICE. RESPOND TO THE COMPLAINT — OR REQUEST AN EXTENSION OF TIME TO RESPOND — WITHIN THE TEN DAY TIME LIMIT PROVIDED IN THE NOTICE. Failure to respond may result in the suspension of your law license, regardless of the underlying complaint.

6. Remember that all attorneys make mistakes. Hopefully yours was not of the nature that will involve a disciplinary sanction being imposed against you, but even if you are ultimately sanctioned, you may receive only a private reprimand. If you know that you have made a mistake, the temptation may be to bury your head in the sand and not respond to the complaint out of fear. You must overcome your fear and respond; otherwise, you are putting your ability to practice law at serious risk!

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