Programs help to avoid discipline

A good deal of ink is devoted to what the State Bar does to discipline hundreds of its members every year. But less is known about the bar's extensive efforts to keep lawyers out of the system by avoiding trouble in the first place.

The programs, which generally target areas that lead to client complaints, include the ethics hotline, ethics school, client trust accounting school, and a new emphasis on fees and fee agreements. Discipline officials also have started to address clients, through local civic organizations, about such issues as what to expect from an attorney and how to maintain a good relationship.

The programs "are designed to keep lawyers ethical and out of the discipline system," says Tracy Genesen, special assistant to the chief trial counsel. "Since we constantly see how attorneys get into trouble, we tell them what to focus on."

The bar always has had diversion and minor misconduct programs for low level discipline matters, with attorneys referred to specific courses which address the problem area.

Often when the bar receives a complaint that does not warrant discipline, it will contact the attorney to warn him or her about a possible violation and to clarify rules governing conduct. If a warning letter is sent, it may include a requirement that the attorney educate himself about the problem.

"These are pure prevention techniques to avoid future problems," says Dominique Snyder, senior trial counsel for the bar and head teacher of ethics school.

Because fee disputes frequently lead to complaints, the bar is developing a new publication, the Handbook on Fees and Fee Agreements for California Attorneys, to guide them. "What I have learned in teaching more than 2,000 students is that fee problems lead to discipline problems," Snyder says.

She reminds lawyers they have a duty to return unearned fees and failure to do so can lead to problems. "We decided to help attorneys avoid problems and pitfalls which can lead to client complaints," Snyder says. "Dissatisfaction leads to complaints. We're trying to teach proactive ways to deal with clients."

The new book is patterned after the client trust accounting handbook, which addresses a key problem area for many attorneys. Banks frequently report trust account problems to the bar, Snyder says. The problem may not be serious, but it can indicate the attorney may not understand how to handle a client trust account. The attorney may then be asked to attend client trust acccounting school.

About 500 students have attended the trust accounting school since its creation in 1993. Problems rarely recur.

Between 1990-96, 1,920 attorneys also have attended ethics school; of those, less than 10 percent had a subsequent investigation matter.

In addition to ethics school, Snyder teaches at least three times a year at other bar events like the annual meeting. These classes, which offer highlights from ethics and trust accounting school, attract hundreds of students. "It's purely prevention, not remedial," Snyder says.

The bar also offers seminars and MCLE classes clarifying particular rules. Recent topics have included a new Rule of Professional Conduct (1-311) governing the responsibilities of disbarred attorneys, and a new pre-trial publicity rule (5-120).

The bar also has undertaken an outreach program for consumers this year.

Bar attorneys address civic organizations, church groups, women's clubs, etc., about questions involving attorneys: How to hire a lawyer, when to call the bar, how to maintain a good relationship with an attorney.

"Some clients' expectations are too high," says Genesen. "They need to be realistic."

The bar will present 50-75 of these seminars this year, she said.