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Attorneys as Clients: An Overview of the Attorney Disciplinary Process

From time to time, attorneys need counsel of their own. Faced with a grievance filed by a client or a complaint filed by the Office of Attorney Ethics alleging a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct (“RPCs”), a member of the bar may be put in a position where independent legal advice is crucial. This post is designed to offer some background on the process of attorney disciplinary proceedings, an area of law that we specialize in at Agre & St. John.

Attorney disciplinary proceedings are initiated in one of two ways: a client may initiate a “grievance” with the Office of Attorney Ethics [“OAE”] or the OAE may initiate its own investigation based upon information received from a variety of sources. If a client grievance is determined to allege unethical conduct on the part of a member of the bar, an investigation will be initiated by the OAE. Often times, with the help of counsel, the investigation stage can thwart the filing of a formal complaint against the attorney. For this reason, it is important to engage counsel immediately upon being advised of the filing of a grievance and the initiation of an investigation by the OAE.

If the investigation findings are determined to warrant the filing of a complaint against the attorney, a formal complaint requiring a formal response within 21 days will be docketed. In select cases, early recognition of “minor misconduct” can lead to diversion and no discipline will ultimately be imposed.

In the event that there is a defense to the alleged conduct, or if there are facts that suggest that discipline should be mitigated, the attorney is entitled to a hearing before a panel consisting of three members (two lawyers and one public member). Following the hearing, at which testimony and evidence can be offered to refute the alleged violations, the panel will make a recommendation either that the complaint be dismissed (in the event that misconduct is unfounded) or that discipline be imposed (in the event that a violation is deemed to have occurred).

Discipline can take various forms, from an admonition to a reprimand to censure to suspension and to the most severe, disbarment. In certain cases, even if a violation of the RPC’s has occurred, a lesser form of discipline is appropriate than that which is sought or recommended by the hearing panel. Effective representation at each level can ensure that the attorney facing the allegations is only held responsible for violations of the RPCs that are proven by clear and convincing evidence and that the level of discipline is mitigated.

Either side, the attorney or the OAE, may appeal the panel’s report and recommendation to the Disciplinary Review Board (“DRB”). The DRB is charged with reviewing the findings of the panel and the discipline recommended, if any. The DRB has the authority to affirm, reverse or remand the panel recommendations. In a limited number of cases, including those that involve disbarment, the New Jersey Supreme Court may issue an Order to Show Cause requiring oral argument as to the DRB’s findings. The New Jersey Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of all disciplinary proceedings although generally the decisions of the DRB are not reversed.

At Agre & St. John, we welcome all inquiries and referrals related to attorney disciplinary proceedings and bar admission issues. Let our experience and knowledge guide you through the difficult process so that you can continue to devote your own experience and legal acumen to your clients and your practice. Contact our South Jersey legal ethics lawyers by calling 856-428-7797 or submit an online inquiry.

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