Consumer complaints way down

Odds and ends from the world of attorney discipline:

  • Consumers apparently are happier than in past years with the way their complaints about attorneys are handled by the State Bar.
  • Chief Trial Counsel Judy Johnson says the number of consumer complaints about attorneys filed directly with the Supreme Court declined dramatically from 1996 to 1997.

    Last year, 71 accusations were filed against attorneys with the high court. For the first six months of this year, only six have gone to the Supreme Court.

    "This speaks volumes about our extra efforts to help consumers understand why we don't pursue their cases," Johnson says.

    Under the old system, dissatisfied clients whose cases were closed could appeal to the Complainants Grievance Panel.

    Then the CGP was dismantled and replaced by the Quality Assurance and Assessment program.

    Last year, the discipline office received 526 requests for review of cases. Of those, 265 were pursued through the QAA program. Following that final internal redress, 71 consumers still were dissatisfied enough to appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

    In the first six months this year, prosecutors received 393 requests for review. During the same time period, 90 complaints went to QAA and only six followed up with a complaint to the Supreme Court.

    Johnson says her office has tried hard to explain the disciplinary process to consumers, including providing the legal and factual basis underlying the disposition of a complaint. "While the complainant may not always agree with a determination," she says, "they certainly have a better understanding as to the basis for the disposition made in their matter."

  • At the same time the Complainants Grievance Panel died, the Discipline Audit Panel was created to conduct random audits of closed matters in both the complaint intake and enforcement offices.
  • Last year, Johnson said, the panel found that the intake unit was "near perfect" in the way it initially processed complaints and that in 87 percent of the matters reviewed, the underlying legal issues were properly identified.

    In addition, the panel said files were closed properly in at least 90 percent of cases reviewed by both the intake and enforcement offices.

    Finally, both units made substantial efforts to complete their work within established time limits and to include proper documentation for the disposition of the case in the files.

    In other words, says Johnson, "nobody is dumping cases."

    The panel's findings, she added, "speak pretty well of the job we're doing in protecting the public."

  • The discipline department has created a speakers bureau as part of its effort to beef up outreach efforts to the public. Through local bar associations and community organizations, bar attorneys have spoken at public forums to help consumers understand how and when to hire an attorney, what to expect from a lawyer, how to maintain a good relationship, and if and when to call the State Bar.
  • So far, the speakers bureau has addressed 50 public forums.

  • Johnson wrote to all of the state's 1,600 judges to notify them about various bar programs to assist with regulating attorney conduct during the course of litigation and in the courtroom.
  • For example, the bar offers a one-hour program for judges covering attorneys' responsibility to the court, the importance of setting ground rules for attorney conduct in the courtroom, how to handle difficult attorneys and the use of inherent powers, the identification and referral of misconduct, and the identification and review of substance abuse problems. Bar attorneys present the program about 10 times a year.

    "The focus this year has changed to professionalism and civility in the courtroom and how to get a handle on that," says Tracy Genesen, special assistant to the chief trial counsel. "We get letters about uncivil conduct, and we're trying to work with judges to be more effective and to determine what are their barriers to enforcing decorum in the courtroom."

    The Canon of Judicial Ethics requires judges to report instances of misconduct to the bar, including sanctions of $1,000 or more, criminal convictions of attorneys and civil judgments involving fraud or misrepresentation by a lawyer.

    Judges can impose sanctions, admonishments and contempt, and if an attorney's behavior merits further discipline, they can refer an attorney to the discipline system. Genesen said the bar also can step in if a case is particularly sensitive or if there is concern about a possible mistrial.

    The bar also maintains a current list of out-of-state attorneys handling California cases (counsel pro hac vice) which can be checked to make certain a lawyer is not engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. If a complaint is filed against such a lawyer, the California bar has jurisdiction for a limited time period.