It takes time, discipline and money to successfully navigate law school. It takes a whole lot more to gain admittance to the State Bar of California and become a practicing attorney. So much invested yet so little time to consider the consequences when facing a disciplinary complaint from a disgruntled client or fastidious competitor.
There are over 266,000 licensed attorneys in California. In 2018, the State Bar reported 15,973 complaints against lawyers. Disciplinary charges were filed in 661 cases, resulting in 280 attorneys being disbarred or suspended.
Still, just opening that notification letter can have a chilling effect when a government agency suddenly is investigating the career and reputation you swore an oath to ethically practice. But it can help to know how the consumer protection process works and how to defend yourself.
How the disciplinary process works in California
You must cooperate with a disciplinary investigation. You also have rights to protect. Being an attorney might give you a general insight into legal procedures. But it could be worth consulting an experienced advocate who knows the State Bar rules and consequences. The Office of Chief Trial Counsel oversees an investigation, which can have several stages leading up to a judgment:
- Can originate from clients, court officers, insurance companies or other attorneys.
- Non-attorneys supervised by State Bar lawyers evaluate complaints and criminal convictions to determine whether the information is worth prosecuting for violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
- Investigators supervised by State Bar lawyers can interview witnesses and subpoena financial records and other documents. Lawyers are bound to cooperate but protected from divulging confidential information that would violate attorney-client privilege.
- If a State Bar lawyer determines the investigation warrants discipline, the attorney is notified and allowed to review the evidence and request a settlement conference before a hearing judge or request a trial.
- Presided over by five State Bar judges – three from Los Angeles, two from San Francisco.
- Decisions by the State Bar Court are forwarded to the California Supreme Court, which can review or adopt discipline, suspension or disbarment.
- An attorney can appeal discipline to the Review Department. The State Bar Court presiding judge and two part-time judges write opinions.
Any charges filed by the State Bar Court are public. The charging document and the attorney’s response will be posted on the bar’s website, along with any discipline the court imposes.
Protect your professional reputation
Attorneys work hard to attract and retain clients. Your professional reputation is currency. Misconduct accusations should be taken seriously and vigorously defended at every stage of an investigation.
Having an experienced colleague representing your interests can help reveal potential blind spots, produce a strong counternarrative and mitigate charges that could wreck your career.