Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin

December, 2004

Client Communication Issues Lead to Most Complaints Against Maryland Lawyers
~Most complaints are dismissed~
By Janet Stidman Eveleth

Today’s consumer exists in a high-tech world with immediate electronic access to everything. Therefore, many clients expect instantaneous communication from their lawyers. When these sophisticated consumers do not receive immediate responses, many complain to the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland (AGC). Most of these complaints involve attorney/client communication issues, and most are dismissed by the AGC as unfounded.

Last year, 77 percent of the 2,095 complaints filed against Maryland’s 31,934 lawyers were dismissed and only 485 (23 percent) required further investigation. According to the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland’s Annual Report for FY 2004, complaints lodged against the state’s attorneys were slightly up from the previous year, while the number of attorneys increased by 710.

In FY 2004, only 485 of the 2,095 complaints were docketed by the AGC and 94 attorneys were disciplined. In FY 2003, 475 of the 2,034 complaints issued against the state’s 31,224 lawyers were docketed, with 91 being disciplined.

“In my opinion, this shows Maryland has an excellent Bar,” exclaims Bar Counsel Melvin Hirshman. “If you take the total number of complaints against lawyers and compare it to the total number of lawyers, it is a very small percentage, indeed. And when you compare the total number of attorneys sanctioned to the total number attorneys in the state, it’s about .003 percent.”

“Maryland lawyers in the main are very attentive to CLE, MSBA’s professionalism initiatives, the professionalism course, the Maryland Bar Journal and other professional publications, networking and keeping up to date with things,” he adds. Hirshman believes this helps attorneys steer clear of the AGC. Overall, Bar Counsel’s assessment is that “Maryland continues to be a strong Bar with few problems.”

“The largest percent of grievances always involve an attorney’s lack of adequate communication or delays in communication with clients,” Bar Counsel continues. He believes our high-tech society contributes to this trend. “Technology is an issue here.”

“Today’s public is more sophisticated, knows how and where to file complaints against lawyers and what to complain about,” asserts Bar Counsel. “A common complaint we hear from lawyers is that in today’s high-tech world where so many people have e-mail, clients expect instantaneous results and instant communication from lawyers. This is not realistic, and it really puts pressure on lawyers.” He considers this dilemma “a sign of the times that puts an extra burden on lawyers.”

The report indicates that 168 docketed complaints involved communication, competence and diligence, 53 dealt with the safekeeping of property and 39 concerned fees. Again this year, the law practice areas drawing the most docketed complaints are personal injury and workers compensation (18 percent) and family law (12 percent), followed by criminal law (14 percent) and civil litigation (14 percent). There were 16 docketed complaints involving the unauthorized practice of law. In terms of sanctions, 22 were disbarred, 23 were suspended and most of the others involved public reprimands.

According to the report, 14 of the 22 disbarments involved financial issues. “Our biggest concern is the improper handling of client funds,” reports Hirshman. “This is very serious and leads to disciplinary action. We are also seeing an increasing number of attorneys suffering from mental illness and depression, probably due to the nature of stress in today’s law practice and our bad economic times.” Many of these attorneys are referred to MSBA’s Lawyer Assistance Program.

In general, Bar Counsel is pleased with the new disciplinary rules, which took effect on July 1, 2001, and he feels they have streamlined the state’s attorney discipline process. “The new rules are moving things along much more rapidly,” Hirshman reports. The AGC must now complete its initial investigation into a complaint within 90 days.

To avoid consumer complaints, Bar Counsel offers advice to Maryland’s Bar. He recommends that today’s attorney limit the number of legal fields that he or she handles. “Increasingly, it is good for lawyers to concentrate on fewer numbers of legal fields because they must keep up with changes in them all and there are constant changes in every area of the law. It is hard to be a generalist and remain proficient in all areas today.”

In addition, Hirshman advises lawyers to do the following:

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Have a written fee agreement.

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Maintain regular communication with the client.

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Be selective in choosing clients (know which ones not to take).

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Know when to withdraw from a case (and do it early).

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Conduct regular billing.

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Make sure that the client understands exactly what you are charging for and encourage him or her to raise questions about fees early on.

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Step into the client’s shoes and understand what it is to be a client.

Hirshman also encourages all Maryland lawyers to join local and state bar associations and attend meetings.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: December, 2004

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