In an effort to be more consumer-friendly, top brass of the State Bar's discipline system have streamlined the review process for disgruntled clients who complain about their lawyers. Under the new system, clients who are unhappy with the way the bar has handled their complaint can receive an explanation quickly from the person who made the decisions.
In addition to placating consumers, attorneys who are targets of complaints will be assured a case which has been closed most likely will not be reopened years later.
"The primary benefit is the speed at which we can process inquiries and more direct contact with the person handling the case," says Chief Trial Counsel Judy Johnson.
Until Jan. 1, the Complainants' Grievance Panel was the body to which consumers appealed when their complaint was dismissed prior to the filing of any formal disciplinary charges.
Created in 1986 by statute, the panel reviewed upwards of 1,500 cases annually and recommended further investigation in about one-third of the matters.
Following a recommendation of the Discipline Evaluation Committee in 1994, the legislature abolished the CGP and turned over its review functions to Johnson's office. A new Discipline Audit Panel will focus solely on random audits of discipline cases.
"From my experience," says Lynne Geminder, the complaint audit and review director, "a lot of complainants were dissatisfied at the end because they didn't understand at the beginning what the bar could and couldn't do for them." In addition, the review process was a lengthy one.
Under the new system, Johnson and assistant chief trial counsel Bill Davis have created a "quality assurance" unit to both help consumers and identify problems within the discipline system.
The grievance panel, said Johnson, always believed the number of dissatisfied clients seeking review could be reduced if the bar did a better job of explaining what the disposition of a case was and why.
A second opinion
"Sometimes people just want a second opinion," she said. For a consumer dissatisfied because his complaint did not merit a fuller investigation, "we believe we can provide more instant feedback and information by directing him back to the individual who made the initial decision."
So far, only a handful of clients have requested further review, said Davis. Those who wish to take their accusation further have a right to file a complaint with the Supreme Court.
But Johnson added that another reason to make the system work better for consumers is to minimize complaints to the high court.
"Supreme Court intervention should be reserved for the rarest of cases," she said.
"This way, people can have their matter judged quickly and efficiently and the Supreme Court need not have its calendar burdened by this kind of litigation."
In addition to handling consumer complaints, the new quality assurance unit will conduct self-assessment of the discipline operation.
"We'll identify those things that continue to work well as well as those which need change or correction," said Davis.
Johnson pointed out that the bar's discipline system has been evaluated by outside entities about every five years, resulting in a "wait until the outsider comes in" approach to fixing shortcomings.
Addressing problems as they arise, she said, will "bring about evolutionary change rather than lurching forward periodically as a result of outside criticism."