Attorneys and clients share an understanding of trust. If a client feels that trust has been breached or an attorney has acted unethically—whether it is true or not—the client has the option to file a complaint with the California State Bar. As an attorney, you may wonder what happens after a complaint is filed.
The process for investigations
There is a standard procedure for processing complaints and grievances, detailed below.
- Once a complaint is received, a State Bar Attorney reviews the documentation and determines whether there was feasible misconduct. You, the attorney, may be contacted and informed of the complaint. This process takes a minimum of two weeks.
- If there are no apparent grounds for discipline, the complaint may be closed. If there are potential grounds, the State Bar will investigate further. You will receive a letter that includes the names of the attorney and investigator assigned to your complaint. This part of the process could take six months or more.
- If no evidence of misconduct materializes, the complaint will be dismissed. If, however, the investigator discovers an ethical violation, the disciplinary process will continue.
- At this point, the State Bar will send a letter stating its intent to file charges. They may try to settle. If a settlement is reached, the outlined discipline is imposed. If that discipline includes suspension or disbarment, the California Supreme Court must approve it.
- If a settlement is not reached, the case becomes a matter of record, as formal charges will be filed. The charge will be posted on the State Bar’s website.
- The case will proceed to trial next, where the State Bar will decide whether to impose disciplinary action. If the State Bar Court decides there should be no discipline, the case will be dismissed. If they decide that disciplinary action is necessary, it will commence and be publicly recorded on the State Bar website. Any suspensions or disbarments must still be approved by the California Supreme Court.
While receiving notice of a complaint is stressful, most complaints will not result in an investigation or a trial. The State Bar Attorney dismisses the majority upon review. If you do experience a complaint that results in an investigation or trial, you have the legal right to a defense.