In the last six months of 2008, docketed complaints against Maryland lawyers fell 24 percent, compared with the previous year, which is significant for several reasons. First, grievances against lawyers tend to rise during tough economic times, and these past six recessionary months have been some of the worst seen since the Great Depression. Second, complaints are sharply declining at a time when the number of attorneys in Maryland has increased by 1,300+.
This steep drop in attorney complaints is a pleasant surprise to Bar Counsel Mel Hirshman as historically, in bleak economic times, consumers face financial hardship which triggers a hike in complaints.
This steep drop in attorney complaints is a pleasant surprise to Bar Counsel Mel Hirshman as historically, in bleak economic times, consumers face financial hardship which triggers a hike in complaints. “In the first six months of FY 08-09, the total number of grievances is down and we are running 52 behind docketed complaints as of December 31, 2007,” reports Hirshman, which means incoming complaints have been “surprisingly slow.”
This is the latest in a series of positive trends documented by the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland (AGC). Hirshman recognizes that lawyer discipline statistics have generally gone up and down over the years, but stresses, “one thing remains consistent – the number of complaints against Maryland lawyers, compared to the number of those sanctioned, grows smaller every year. This is a very good sign.”
“Maryland has an excellent Bar,” stresses Hirshman, who attributes many of these positive trends to the strong support of lawyers shown by the Maryland State Bar Association and the entire legal community. “Everything from MSBA’s Professionalism Course for new admits, law office management programs and publications to MICPEL CLE programs, law school emphasis on ethics and professionalism and the dissemination of disciplinary cases heard by the Court of Appeals of Maryland has contributed to this positive direction.”
Although the number of complaints is down in the first six months of FY 08-09, The Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland’s 33rd Annual Report (July 1, 2007 – June 30, 2008) reveals a slight rise in docketed complaints for FY 07-08, up from 351 in 06-07 to 406 last year. As always, client communication leads the list as the most common consumer complaint lodged against lawyers, and most of these involve e-communication.
“Today’s clients are sophisticated,” contends Hirshman, “and more demanding, so when they e-mail an attorney, they expect an instantaneous return e-mail.” Acknowledging that this is “unrealistic and unreasonable, with most of these complaints being dismissed as unfounded,” Hirshman still cautions “this is the wave of the future and something with which lawyers must deal.”
To avert communication complaints, Bar Counsel recommends attorneys “communicate with clients.” He emphasizes, “Attorneys should do their work in a timely fashion; if you promise something to a client on a certain date then do it. The client is expecting it and, with technology, it is an easy thing to do.” Plus “go the extra step and send your clients an occasional e-mail simply telling them there is nothing new to report.”
Overall, the Report indicates that 406 of the total 1,647 complaints received by AGC in 07-08 required further investigation and were docketed. In terms of law practice areas, civil litigation attracted the most complaints against practitioners at 64, followed by criminal law at 52 and family law and personal injury with 37 each. Geographically speaking, Montgomery County lawyers had the most complaints lodged against them with 74, followed by Prince George’s County with 62; four Counties, Calvert, Caroline, Kent and Queen Anne’s had none.
Of the 67 disciplinary actions in 07-08: misconduct, dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation accounted for 17; competent representation, diligence, communication, negligence and abiding by the client’s decision and misconduct – prejudicial to administration of justice or unauthorized practice of law each claimed 9; and failure to maintain complete records, account to client or others, maintain trust account or safeguard funds had 6. A total of 24 attorneys were suspended and 11 were disbarred.