I am excited to have a guest post this week by Warren Hinds on a topic that is important to all lawyers…
There are essentially four (4) potential stages to a Georgia State Bar disciplinary proceeding: (1) screening by the Office of General Counsel (“OGC”); (2) review by the Investigative Panel; (3) filing of Formal Complaint by the OGC and appointment of a Special Master by the Supreme Court of Georgia; and (4) final disposition by the Court (with or without intervention of the Review Panel).
Beginning with the second level, the respondent-lawyer “shall” respond in accordance with the Bar Rules, or risk the entry of Order of suspension or disbarment. See e.g. Bar Rule 4-204.3 (Answer to Notice of Investigation); Rule 4-212 (Answer to Formal Complaint).
However, at the initial screening stage, which usually includes forwarding a copy of the grievance to the lawyer for input, the respondent “may” — but is not required to — respond to the grievance. Bar Rule 4-202(b). Indeed, the OGC’s form cover letter which accompanies the grievance when first forwarded to a lawyer references this discretion:
Enclosed is a grievance which as been filed with the Office of the General Counsel. I am forwarding this information to you for two reasons. First, it is important for you to know that a member of the public has complained. Second, I would like to offer you the opportunity to provide this office with additional information about the matters described in the grievance.
… If you do not file a written response by the due date given above, we may assume the accuracy of the information contained in the grievance and make a decision without your participation.
The fact that submitting a response at the screening stage is optional does not mean, however, that a respondent-lawyer should ignore or take lightly the “opportunity” to provide the OGC with information addressing the matters presented in the grievance. According to the Annual Reports of the OGC for the past two (2) years (2015 and 2016), approximately ninety percent (90%) of grievances were dismissed after initial review by the OGC. Although the Investigative Panel is also vested with the authority to dismiss a grievance such that there may be a second bite at the apple, for those matters which reached the second level, the dismissal rate dropped sharply to approximately thirty percent (30%).
Accordingly, a lawyer confronted with an ethics complaint should not waste the opportunity to seek dismissal of the grievance at the earliest possible stage. Legal assistance should be sought from a specialist in the area; or, at the very least, an objective viewpoint obtained from a trusted colleague.
Thorough review of the underlying file is essential so that a concise, accurate response can be submitted to the OGC. Do not make the mistake of “getting serious only when it gets serious.”
Warren R. Hinds, Esq. focuses his practice in the areas of professional and personal liability, including the representation of other lawyers in legal malpractice claims and State Bar disciplinary proceedings. You can find him here: www.warrenhindslaw.com