State Bar Investigations
Lawyers refer to the dreaded letter from the State Bar as a “bar complaint.” The State Bar refers to it as a “charge” (see Rule 46(f)(3), Ariz. R. Sup. Ct.) or an “inquiry” (see State Bar’s website form). Whatever the term used, the fact is, they are always complaints. Somebody is not happy about something a lawyer supposedly did or did not do.
Typically the complaints come from disgruntled clients who are hoping to get their money back, sometimes they come from other lawyers or the court or a family member of a client. Sometimes the lawyer actually did do something wrong—however, the statistics show that most of time the lawyer did nothing wrong.
The main thing to remember if you receive one of these letters is, you have to answer that letter and you have to answer it timely. Failure to timely respond to the State Bar may be charged as a violation in and of itself.
The next question is, do you answer the letter yourself, or do you retain counsel? Like so many questions in our field, the answer depends on the facts. We have all heard the expression: “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” In Bar matters, that is definitely true if you are a respondent in the formal process—i.e., the Bar has filed a formal complaint against you before a Hearing Officer of the Supreme Court of Arizona. However, you may not need to hire counsel to respond to the informal “inquiry” letters. Many of those simply require a brief explanation and they will be dismissed.
Nevertheless, you really ought to at least briefly discuss it with an experienced discipline counsel to be sure that it is one of those simple matters that will be dismissed. And you really ought to show your draft response to an experienced discipline counsel to ensure that you don’t shoot yourself in the foot with your response.
I provide a half hour consultation at no charge, and a half hour is usually enough for me to determine what the issues are and let you know whether you need representation or not. I do not beat around the bush and I do not make any efforts to drum up business for myself by suggesting you need my help if you do not. I run a solo practice and I have minimal overhead (purposely).
After my review, I will give you my honest evaluation of your situation. Because I was a Bar Counsel, and have reviewed hundreds of charges, my insight can often be invaluable. If for any reason I believe you need representation and I cannot provide that assistance, or you and I are not a good “fit,” I will refer you to the other attorneys who regularly practice in this area.
Finally, if you have any inclination whatsoever to stick that letter in a drawer and forget about it, pick up that phone and call me, or another respondent’s counsel, immediately. There is little that frustrates me more than seeing a lawyer sanctioned simply because he or she was overwhelmed with work or personal issues and unable to respond to a Bar charge.