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CA attorneys and ethics violations: What is the process?

It is not uncommon for a client to get upset about the outcome of their case. But what happens if they decide to take that frustration and target your profession? What if they make accusations that the reason their case failed was because of your misconduct? What if they file an ethics violation?

Almost anyone can file a complaint against an attorney, so if a client is frustrated, they could see this as a way to lash out. Although the exact process will vary by state and depending on the details of each individual case, the following information can give you a better idea of what to expect.

How does the process begin and where are decisions made?

The process often begins when a former client, other attorney, judge, or other individual files a complaint. In California, there is no fee to file. Once the compliant is filed, the State Bar of California will generally review the complaint and determine whether or not it warrants an investigation.

If an investigation occurs, the group will likely attempt to resolve the matter with the attorney or refer the matter to the State Bar Court for a disciplinary hearing. California is the only state that has its own court that focuses solely on attorney discipline matters. If it moves forward, the case will head to the Hearing Department, which is the trial level of the State Bar Court. Judges at this level would make recommendations to the Supreme Court for violations of Professional Conduct. If an attorney disagrees with the recommendation of the Hearing Department, they can take the matter to the appellate level which is the Review Department.

What are the possible penalties for this type of violation?

It is important to take the allegations seriously as an ethics violation can result in serious penalties. The State Bar could issue a reprimand, either private or public, order a restitution payment, suspend, or even disbar the attorney.

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