MSBA's Professionalism Course Makes
~One of keys to decline in complaints
MSBA's new attorney professionalism course, now
completed by more than 23,800 of the state's lawyers, is making a difference
in Maryland's Bar, evidenced in the continuing drop in annual complaints
against state lawyers. The Attorney Grievance Commission (AGC) credits MSBA's
14-year-old professionalism course, along with MICPEL's CLE programs, ethics
classes in law schools and other CLE courses, as the key to declining attorney
grievances in recent years in Maryland. For the last two years, the total
number of complaints and the total number of docketed complaints against
attorneys are both down, while the number of practitioners steadily rises.
"Maryland's Bar is super," declares Bar Counsel
Melvin Hirshman. "We are getting fewer complaints and fewer investigations,
so apparently with MSBA's professionalism course, more CLE and law school
programs the Bar seems to be getting better. Every year there are fewer complaints
and a greater number of new admittees; we now have between 32,000 and 33,000
lawyers, and at the end of the year the number of sanctions are down from
the previous year. I attribute this to the betterment of the lawyers in the
The Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland's
31st Annual Report (July 1, 2005 – June 30, 2006) indicates that
the number of docketed complaints against the state's 32,390 lawyers dropped
for the third year in a row. The total number of complaints has dropped
to 1,444, down from 1,562 last year and 1,610 the previous year. Last year,
there were 400 docketed complaints against lawyers, compared to 469 in
04-05 and 485 in 03-04. The number of disbarments remained the same at
10, a miniscule percentage of the state's 32,390 attorneys.
Communication remains the biggest problem, and
most client complaints involve e-mail communication with their attorneys.
In today's high-tech world, consumers expect immediate electronic access
to everything, including their attorney. "Clients simply demand an instantaneous
return e-mail," Hirshman explains. "Of course, this is totally unreasonable
and most of these complaints are dismissed as unfounded, but this is the
wave of the future."
"Clients are absolutely impatient," asserts Bar
Counsel. "I get complaints now that show e-mails between the lawyer and client
and the client is often complaining because the lawyer is not responding
quickly enough. Essentially, communication today means responding to e-mails
and this is the modern way of doing business, so lawyers must deal with it."
Hirshman warns lawyers that one problem with
this mode of communication is that lawyers sometimes respond to a client
instantaneously "without taking the time they need to think it through" and
this can lead to problems. He also reminds lawyers that these responses "take
time that would be spent taking care of other client problems."
Bar Counsel often reminds the complaining client that lawyers have a lot of
clients, but that client only has one legal matter. "Clients don't understand
According to the AGC report, the law practice
areas that attracted the highest number of docketed complaints (out of a
total of 400) were civil litigation with 57, followed by family law at 50;
criminal law at 47; personal injury and bankruptcy at 43 each; real estate
at 30; and probate at 23. Baltimore County attracted the largest number of
the 400 docketed complaints with 74, then Baltimore City at 68, Montgomery
County at 60, Prince George's County at 59 and Anne Arundel County at 19.
Of the 74 disciplinary actions this year, 19
fell into the area of competent representation, diligence and communication,
followed by 11 in dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation, nine misconduct – prejudicial
to administration of justice or the unauthorized practice of law, nine theft
of client funds, fiduciary funds or law firm funds and six failure to maintain
complete records, account to client or others, maintain trust account or
"We are always concerned about the few errant
lawyers who abuse their fiduciary duties by mishandling funds," laments Hirshman.
There were 95 overdraft notices received this year, 64 of which were dismissed.
Bar Counsel adds that the Court of Appeals is now working on a new required
record-keeping rule, and if it is adopted and goes into effect (probably
not until 2008), then the AGC will go around the state talking to lawyers
about it and hopefully that will help some lawyers so they know what records
they should be keeping.
Last year, there were 71 attorneys
involved in conditional diversion agreements, as compared to 65 the year before.
Now in its fifth year, conditional diversion, Rule 16-736, has succeeded as
an attorney disciplinary alternative to the traditional disciplinary procedure.
Contingent on the offense, attorneys have the option of conditional diversion.
The Rule specifies that, if the alleged offense
was not the result of a willful or dishonest act, was not sufficient to warrant
immediate discipline and was subject to remediation and resolution, the attorney
can be referred to conditional diversion at the discretion of the Attorney
Grievance Commission. This process is intended to correct medical or professional
problems or deficiencies that can be rectified with appropriate educational
courses, mentoring or a monitor.
"Condition diversion is working out just fine," stresses
Hirshman. "We have only had to revoke a couple of them, and they are quite
popular with our peer-review panels, and we are agreeable to this if we think
it is proper. So at any given time we have about 60-70 ongoing agreements." It
has gone over so well in Maryland that other states are now interested and
have been studying our model.
According to the report, some of Maryland's agreements
have resulted in "apologies to clients and others; refund of fees, attendance
at MSBA's professionalism course or CLE courses; attendance at an all-day
conference for solo practitioners; courses in legal ethics, return to law
school for a class in a substantive area of the law and monitoring by MSBA's
Lawyer Assistance Program."
To avoid complaints, Bar Counsel advises
attorneys to limit their number of legal fields. In today's legal world, lawyers
should "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: (1) have
a written fee agreement; (2) be selective when choosing clients; (3) maintain
a regular billing system; (4) know when to withdraw from a case and do so
early in the process; (5) make sure the client understands exactly what services
the attorney is charging for and ask for questions regarding fees; and (6)
try to see things from the client's perspective and understand what the client
is feeling. Further, Hirshman encourages all Maryland lawyers to join the
Maryland State Bar Association and their local bar association and to actively
participate and take advantage of networking opportunities and Bar programs
like the Ethics Committee and Ethics Hotline.