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A little of everything on the State Bar complaint line

By John Van de Kamp

John Van de Kamp
Van de Kamp

Agnes Nocom has been on the phone for more than two years. Trained as an attorney in the Philippines, Agnes is a State Bar complaint analyst who with three others on her shift responds to calls on the bar’s public hotline.

Her intake unit receives more than 112,000 calls, while complaint analysts speak to approximately 55,000 callers each year.

Having spent most of my professional life in prosecutorial offices, I wanted to see how well the State Bar operation handled its intake process — which for a prosecution office is a key point in its delivery system. So in early April I spent three hours with Agnes as she responded to the public.

At the outset, a distinction needs to be made. A DA’s office responds to worked-up police investigations, where law enforcement provides written reports of investigations undertaken and in many instances completed. At the State Bar, our analysts are the first to receive allegations of misconduct, and it’s here that we begin an investigative process that could lead to anything from clearance of the attorney to disbarment.

The afternoon with Agnes was an eye (or ear) opener. Agnes and our complaint analysts serve as referral agents, educators and social workers, as well as moving the intake process along. They must be smart, computer-savvy (with a great deal of information available on their screens), friendly, patient and hardworking.

Agnes was all of those.

In the afternoon I spent with her, a range of subjects was addressed.

Q. How can I get my lawyer to communicate with me?
A. If they don’t communicate, it’s a violation of the rules. We’ll send you a complaint form. And we’ll follow up.

Q. My lawyer won’t turn over my file. How do I get it?
A. Give us a written complaint and we’ll contact him. If he doesn’t then turn it over, he may face charges.

Q. What is an attorney’s disciplinary record?
A. Only public disciplinary actions can be reported; pending complaint investigations cannot be revealed.

Q. What do I do when my lawyer declares a conflict of interest? To whom should I turn?
A. The State Bar’s list of lawyer referral services was provided.

Q. How can I get my attorney’s address?
A. Our Web site was reviewed and the address was provided.

Q. My attorney owes me money. What should I do?
A. Ask for an accounting and if not satisfied file a complaint. Better yet, seek fee arbitration through your local bar association.

Q. My lawyer isn’t really a lawyer. She took the role of a lawyer in an office and passed herself off as a lawyer. What should I do?
A. Call the local DA’s office, which has jurisdiction for prosecuting the unauthorized practice of law.

Q. A lawyer calls in. He has just returned from a vacation to find a letter from the bar asking him to respond to a complaint; he wanted an extension.
A. He was given the number of the intake analyst handling his case. Call the analyst.

Q. How do I get a record of discipline imposed?
A. Go to or contact the State Bar Court with the name of the attorney and the case number, and they’ll give you the record of the actual discipline imposed. The State Bar Court address and phone number were provided.

Every caller has a different story and tells it in their own individual way. Those who are Spanish-speaking are referred to a bilingual analyst. Some are downright mad — and close to abusive with the analyst. But Agnes’ persistent response to questions usually breaks down some of the anger. And thank you’s usually end the conversation.

No cases are opened during the phone interview with the complaint analyst. Intake awaits formal written complaints from the public, either on the forms the bar provides or from letters received.

Beyond monitoring Agnes’ shift, I reviewed some 50 files closed soon after formal complaints had been received.

The complaints in those files are similar in substance to those coming from Agnes’ callers.

  • My lawyer won’t answer my calls.
  • My lawyer won’t turn over my files.
  • My lawyer took my money and didn’t perform.

These complaints come in with numbing regularity.

Once a written complaint is received, the deputy trial counsel may assign it out to a complaint analyst to contact the attorneys in question to obtain a response to the allegation and, if appropriate, seek compliance with State Bar rules. Compliance is often obtained. When the bar doesn’t obtain compliance, the complaints are turned over to investigations and to the Office of Trial Counsel for a possible filing.

What strikes home in this review of the front end of the system is the apparent inability or appreciation by too many lawyers about their professional responsibilities.

Quick responses to client calls should be a matter of course.

File turnovers — if requested — should be relatively simple.

Basic business procedures should be the order of the day, e.g., a signed retention agreement with the client.

So how do we build professional competence? Early awareness of law practice expectations and techniques are essential. At a bar meeting last month to discuss performance measures in the area of member services, members of the board of governors and meeting participants reiterated time and time again that we need to do a better job of teaching, and perhaps requiring, courses for lawyers-to-be (in law school), and lawyers in their first years of practice, about the essentials of law practice management — perhaps even mandatory MCLE programs for new lawyers about the expectations for professionalism. And unquestionably, early immersion in the intricacies of client trust accounting should cut down a major source of our complaints.

While such programs won’t put Agnes out of a job, they’ll certainly permit her and her colleagues at intake to concentrate on more serious matters.

John Van de Kamp is a vice president of the State Bar Board of Governors, representing Los Angeles.

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