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Facing disciplinary actions for unintentional ethics violations

Attorneys have an extremely complex job, with many different rules and regulations to keep in mind and comply with at all times. It’s an unfortunate truth that even the most careful and capable attorney may sometimes unintentionally violate a rule and may come under investigation of the disciplinary board for doing so. As stressful as this situation may seem, it doesn’t necessarily have to spell the end of your career – especially if the violation was unintentional.

The disciplinary process

The California State Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct outline the various rules that attorneys must abide by in their practice, as well as the penalties for failing to do so. The California State Bar’s disciplinary board oversees actions to discipline attorneys who it alleges have violated these rules.

If you receive notice that the board is investigating you for alleged violations, you have options. You will have the chance to attend a disciplinary hearing on the matter, and to hire an experienced professional discipline attorney to represent you and to present evidence in your defense.

Your defense

Many of the violations listed in the Rules of Professional Conduct contain the necessary element of knowingly, intentionally or negligently performing or failing to perform a certain action. Thus, the burden of proof will be on the disciplinary board to prove that you carried out these actions with a specific mens rea.

If your alleged violation was for unintentional overbilling, for example, you will have a chance to demonstrate the circumstances surrounding the incident. Your attorney will be able to argue that you did not fraudulently overbill the client in violation of your fiduciary duties, and that the mistake you made was reasonable under the circumstances – thus negating the required elements of a negligence claim.

Being able to show that you promptly took steps to rectify the mistake as soon as you discovered it will also go a long way in demonstrating that your violation was unintentional.

Ethics violations can have a severe impact on the career of an attorney – from temporary suspensions to full disbarment. But with the right strategy, you may stand a chance of mitigating or avoiding the penalties for an unintentional violation.

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