Six steps to making it through a grievance complaint.

By James Gray Robinson, Consultant and Speaker

Let’s face it, domestic law is not for wimps. It is often nasty and contentious with high-level stress sprinkled on top. It may be the worst time in your client’s life and frequently evokes less than commendable behavior by all parties concerned. Emotions run high, the sky is falling and it is the end of the world. Then you get what every lawyer secretly dreads, a complaint filed with the State Bar accusing you of unethical conduct. Now it’s personal.

I remember my first time. When I tell people the circumstances around the grievance, most people laugh and shake their heads. But I can tell you it was not funny for me. It sounds like the screen play for a “B” film noir movie. I was sitting in my office minding my own business. I may even have had my feet propped up on my desk (although I doubt it, my partners frowned on that sort of thing). In walked a 6- foot tall Playboy model in 5-inch stiletto heels. I should have ducked and run.

Basically, she had been sued by her husband for adultery and divorce. According to her, they had a threesome with his business partner and she started liking the business partner more than her husband. One thing led to another and with a man’s pride at stake, he forsook counseling for a good old fashioned public shit storm. She was drop-dead gorgeous so “why not?” I asked myself. I asked and got my modest retainer and then all hell broke loose.

What I thought was going to be a good old fashioned “fess up and settle” case went sideways on me after the preliminary round of pleadings was over. The plaintiff-husband decided to file a grievance with my State Bar Disciplinary Committee claiming I had interfered with his marriage and committed adultery with his wife/my client (who he had already sued for adultery). He also sued me for civil damages for breaking up his marriage and carnal knowledge of his wife. I initially thought that someone had put street drugs in my (or his) coffee or I had awoken in a parallel universe where good was bad and bad was good.

The bad news was that I had to go through the disciplinary process and a two-week civil trial before I cleared my name and reputation. I went through episodic depression and a lot of cocktail talk over a three-year period.  My legal fees reached six figures. The fact that this was on top of my second divorce which was ugly to start with made it farcical. The local bar joked that I should have sold tickets to the trial. We were eventually awarded costs but the plaintiff filed bankruptcy so that was no relief. I did learn some tips on how to endure the disciplinary process and gained a valuable appreciation for those going through the same thing.

Take a Deep Breath

I know that it feels like a long dive off a short cliff is in order, but trust me, it is like skiing. If you don’t fall, you aren’t trying hard enough. The practice of law will eventually get a grievance unless you are a trust fund baby and limit your practice to speeding tickets and cap your salary at $25,000 a year. No, you are not going to die or lose your living. The State Bar understands that people file frivolous grievances all the time and if you are ethical and follow the rules you will be okay. It is ironic to the absurd to experience what the public feels like when they have been sued.

Denial Won’t Help

The most common response to that letter from the State Bar is “this can’t be happening to me”. The quickest emotional release is to accept the fact that this is happening to you and it isn’t the end of the world. It is more like walking down the street and having a pigeon hit a bulls-eye on your head. The first thing you need to do is find an experienced defense counsel who defends lawyers before the State Bar. They will be able to objectively assess your situation and help you draft your response. I have represented several lawyers in defense of grievances filed and I can promise you that you are not thinking clearly at this moment in time. As in all legal pleadings, how you respond matters.

Take an Inventory

Even if you haven’t done anything wrong, grievances are a good time to review your practice and see if there is anything you need to change. You probably have a good idea of what your reputation is and how fragile you might be. I used to practice against an out of town domestic lawyer who had a basket beside his “in-out” trays that read “bar complaints”. Obviously, he had a cavalier attitude towards the grievance process. He was a bit of a legend and most attorneys felt he was the last attorney they wanted to litigate against. I found him to be a huge rogue, and I could not help but laugh when he was impossible to deal with. That is the exception rather than the rule, but if you have a “scorched earth” approach to your law practice, you might want to consider another way to practice. Probably the biggest complaint lawyers get is based on miscommunication or no communication. Return those telephone calls, dammit!

Get a Mentor

If you are young and in a single practice or small practice it is a great idea to find an older lawyer to mentor you. Many State Bars have programs to that effect. Believe it or not, State Bars don’t like grievances any more than you do, especially grievances based on rookie mistakes. If you don’t feel comfortable seeking help from active lawyers, you can seek out retired attorneys who have nothing better to do and probably would be honored to help anyway they can.

Learn the Lesson

I once represented a lawyer who was disciplined for “borrowing” from his client trust account. He only got a temporary suspension, which was a great result for him. Unfortunately, he was not so lucky the second time he “borrowed” from his client trust fund. Learn the lesson doesn’t just mean “don’t do it again,” it means “what is the universe trying to tell you?” You may need to consider another career. Even though I was completely innocent of any wrongdoing in the grievances and litigation filed against me, I retired and went into counseling. I didn’t want to be a lawyer anyway, I let the grievance be a signal loud and clear that I should be doing something else for a living. I am not necessarily recommending that anyone facing a grievance should retarget their career path, but you may want to consider a less litigious profession. Lawyers make easy targets.

Be Pro-Active

If you are not active in your community, you should be. Lawyers are desperately needed on the community level to help lead the public. It also looks good to the Bar Committee considering your grievance. An ounce of prevention is more valuable than a pound of cure. Most of the grievances are because the client doesn’t feel valued or appreciated by the lawyer. If you are perceived as a friend to the public, that will go a long way to avoiding any unnecessary unpleasantness. As I found out, sometimes haters are just going to hate and it doesn’t matter what your reputation is. In my case, both the husband and wife were trying to extort money from me. Such is life.

James Gray Robinson was a third generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. You can learn more about his work by visiting www.JamesGrayRobinson.com.

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