Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : December 2005

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Complaints Against MD Lawyers Drop While Number of Practitioners Rises
~Client communications still no. 1 consumer complaint~

By Janet Stidman Eveleth

The number of Maryland lawyers continues to climb, while sanctions against them go down. “Maryland has a super Bar,” declares Bar Counsel Melvin Hirshman. According to the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, complaints filed against Maryland lawyers declined in the last 12 months, and 77 percent of those filed were dismissed. Client communication is still the number one consumer complaint.

Many of these complaints involve e-mail communication with attorneys. In today’s high-tech world, consumers expect immediate electronic access to everything, including their attorney. They demand instantaneous responses. When they e-mail their attorney repeatedly and don’t get a response, what do they do? In some cases, these sophisticated consumers contact the Attorney Grievance Commission and lodge a complaint against the attorney.

“We have an increasing number of grievances involving complaints about unanswered e-mails to lawyers,” explains Bar Counsel. “Clients simply demand an instantaneous return e-mail. Of course, this is totally unreasonable,” adds Hirshman, “and most of these complaints are dismissed as unfounded, but this is the wave of the future and something with which lawyers must deal.”

Overall, most complaints lodged against lawyers last year involved client communication, a lack of diligence and/or competence. “Traditionally, a lot of complaints come in about inadequate or slow communication,” Hirshman states. He advises lawyers not to take cases they should not take and emphasizes “CLE programs really help guide practitioners along these lines.”

The Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland’s 30th Annual Report, covering June 1, 2004 to June 20, 3005, reports that complaints dropped from 1,610 in FY ’04 to 1,562 in FY ’05. Of these 1,562 complaints, only 469 became docketed actions, as compared to 485 in ’04. The report also discloses that fewer attorneys were disbarred in the past year – 22 in ’04 down to 10 in ’05.

Again this year, most disciplinary actions (72 total) fell into the area of “competent representation, diligence, communication, neglect and abiding by the client’s decision at 24;” followed by “theft of client’s funds, estate funds, fiduciary funds or law firm funds at 11; misconduct, dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation at 8; criminal act at 7; failure to maintain complete records, account to client or others, maintain trust account or safeguard funds at 6; and misconduct, prejudicial to administration of justice/unauthorized practice of law at 6.”

In terms of law practice areas (469 total), personal injury/workers compensation attracted the most complaints against practitioners at 74, followed by civil litigation at 61, family law at 57, bankruptcy at 56, criminal law at 48, real estate at 29 and probate at 25. Geographically speaking, Baltimore City lawyers had the most complaints lodged against them with 105, followed by Baltimore (80), Montgomery (66) and Prince George’s (60) Counties. Kent, Somerset, Talbot and Wicomico Counties all tied for last place with one complaint each.

“Overall, this report shows Maryland has an excellent Bar,” continues Hirshman. “When you compare Maryland’s 32,066 practicing attorneys with the total number of sanctioned attorneys, it is a very, very small percentage, indeed – about .003 percent. This makes our office very happy.”

While there will always be a “few bad apples in any profession,” Hirshman credits MSBA’s professionalism course with “having quite an effect in helping attorneys with ethics and with the general practice of law.”

He also finds Maryland lawyers are “very attentive to professional publications like the Maryland Bar Journal and MICPEL and local bar association CLE programs,” which help them steer clear of the Attorney Grievance Commission.

To avoid problems, Bar Counsel advises attorneys to limit the number of legal fields they handle to avoid consumer complaints. “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,” Hirshman notes. “It is hard to be a generalist and remain proficient in all areas today.” Hirshman also recommends that lawyers:

bullet have a written fee agreement
bullet conduct regular billing
bullet maintain regular billing
bullet be selective in choosing clients
bullet know when to withdraw from a case, and to do so early
bullet make sure the client understands exactly what the attorney is charging for and encourage him or her to raise questions about fees early on
bullet step into the client’s shoes and understand what it is to be a client.

Further, Hirshman encourages all Maryland lawyers to join the Maryland State Bar Association and their local bar association and actively participate and attend meetings.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: December 2005

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