State Disciplinary Boards, Filing Complaints, and Legal Malpractice

Attorneys are human, and can make mistakes when representing clients. In some instances, the errors are serious, and can impart long-lasting effects. In matters such as these, a lawyer can be disciplined for violating legal ethics, and may even lose their right to practice law.

Each individual state in the nation has a disciplinary board that enforces state ethics rules for attorneys. The board is typically an arm of the state’s supreme court. The disciplinary board has the authority to:

  • Interpret ethics rules
  • Investigate potential violations
  • Conduct evidentiary hearings
  • Administer attorney discipline

Depending on the particular offense, the disciplinary board might:

  • Issue a public reprimand. This is generally published in the agency’s official reports and a local newspaper or legal journal.
  • Issue a private reprimand. This is typically a letter sent to the attorney.
  • Suspend the attorney. This action prevents the lawyer from practicing law for a specified length of time.
  • Disbar the lawyer. This action causes the attorney to lose his or her license to practice law.
  • Order the attorney to pay monetary restitution to the client.

Many state disciplinary boards have websites where individuals can search for an attorney by name to see if he or she has a history of disciplinary action.

Filing a Complaint

If you believe your attorney has violated an ethical rule, you may file a complaint with the disciplinary board in the state where he or she is licensed. Or, you could turn to an ethical law practice and professional responsibility lawyer. In many states, you can file your complaint to the disciplinary board by mailing in a state-issued complaint form or letter with the following information:

  • The attorney’s name and contact information 
  • Your name and contact information
  • A description of the problem
  • Copies of relevant documents

In some states, you may be able to make your complaint online or over the phone. Some states may allow complaints anonymously if the problems impact the general public. However, it can be challenging for the disciplinary agency to investigate a complaint without the cooperation of the party making the complaint. The board must gather evidence before disciplining a lawyer. In some instances, the testimony of the complainant is the only available evidence. Or, the disciplinary board might need to know the identity of the complainant to begin any investigation at all. In the majority of cases, complaints come from the attorney’s own clients. However, judges and other attorneys sometimes file complaints against lawyers for misconduct and improper behavior.

Disciplinary Board Investigation Process

In the majority of cases, a board of non-lawyers and lawyers review complaints. If there is a potential ethical violation, the board will give the attorney a copy of the complaint and also an opportunity to respond.

In some states, the complainant can comment on the attorney’s response and request a detailed investigation. If the board finds no evidence of a violation, it will dismiss the case and notify the complainant. If the violation is only minor, a letter or phone call to the attorney usually resolves the matter. For more serious offenses, the disciplinary board will hold an evidentiary hearing.

The purpose of a state disciplinary board is not to compensate wronged clients for their losses; it is to discipline lawyers. If you are hoping to receive compensation, a malpractice lawsuit is typically your best avenue. Legal malpractice lawsuits can be very challenging to win, however. You will need to show that your attorney made a substantial error in your case and that you suffered a significant monetary loss because of it.