Disciplinable Offenses and Client Complaints

Attorneys are human, just like everyone else. They make mistakes when representing clients sometimes. In some instances, the errors are barely noticeable and easily fixable. In other cases, the mistakes are serious, or even severe. In situations such as these, an attorney may be disciplined for violating legal ethics, and may also lose their right to practice law.

What Are Disciplinable Offenses?

Attorneys are often given a great deal of responsibility. They frequently deal with serious and impactful matters, from child custody to tax and financial matters to criminal charges. When an individual hires a lawyer, they are entrusting him or her to represent their rights and interests in the best way possible. Each state in the nation has its own code of ethics that lawyers must follow, which serves to protect the public and the integrity of the legal profession, as well. These are the “rules of professional conduct.”

The American Bar Association publishes a list called the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. It identifies best practices and standard ethical violations for legal professionals. Some states use the model rules as their own ethical rules. Other states use the model as a guideline, and then add or modify rules. However, most states cover common issues, such as

Avoiding conflicts of interest

Communicating with clients

Charging fees

Handling client funds

What are Some Common Client Complaints?

Common issues that clients have about their lawyers include:


  • Failure to adequately communicate with them. It is a lawyer’s duty to keep their clients reasonably well-informed about the status of their claims and cases. They should also respond promptly to requests for information and consult with their clients about significant decisions in their cases.


  • Attorney incompetence. Legal professionals are required to have the knowledge and experience to handle any case that they take on competently. They must also be prepared to handle any matters that arise in a client’s case.


  • Conflicts of interest. Attorneys have a duty of loyalty to their clients. Consequently, they must act with the client’s rights and best interests in mind. They should avoid any situations that might create a conflict of interest.

  • Retaining (not returning) a client’s documents. A client’s own file is generally considered to be the client’s property. When a client ends their relationship with an attorney and asks for their file, the lawyer must return it promptly. Some states even require that the attorney must return the file even if their fees haven’t been paid in full.


  • Financial matters. Charging excessive fees, stealing or misplacing client funds, or refusing to hand over money owed to a client, are all ethics violations. However, when there is a simple dispute over how much a client owes their lawyer in legal fees, it is typically not an ethics matter. Most of the time, these kinds of disputes are handled and resolved through fee arbitration. Fee arbitration is an informal process where both sides present their arguments to a neutral third party, who hears and makes a decision about the dispute.

Clients who believe their lawyer has violated an ethical rule may file their complaints with the disciplinary board in the state where the attorney holds his or her license.