Client Communication Issues Lead to Most Complaints Against Maryland
~Most complaints are dismissed~
By Janet Stidman
Today’s consumer exists in a high-tech
world with immediate electronic access to everything. Therefore, many
clients expect instantaneous communication from their lawyers. When these
sophisticated consumers do not receive immediate responses, many complain
to the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland (AGC). Most of these
complaints involve attorney/client communication issues, and most are
dismissed by the AGC as unfounded.
Last year, 77 percent of the 2,095 complaints filed against Maryland’s
31,934 lawyers were dismissed and only 485 (23 percent) required further
investigation. According to the Attorney Grievance Commission of
Maryland’s Annual Report for FY 2004, complaints lodged against the
state’s attorneys were slightly up from the previous year, while the
number of attorneys increased by 710.
In FY 2004, only 485 of the 2,095 complaints were docketed by the AGC and
94 attorneys were disciplined. In FY 2003, 475 of the 2,034 complaints
issued against the state’s 31,224 lawyers were docketed, with 91 being
“In my opinion, this shows Maryland has an excellent Bar,” exclaims Bar
Counsel Melvin Hirshman. “If you take the total number of complaints
against lawyers and compare it to the total number of lawyers, it is a
very small percentage, indeed. And when you compare the total number of
attorneys sanctioned to the total number attorneys in the state, it’s
about .003 percent.”
“Maryland lawyers in the main are very attentive to CLE, MSBA’s
professionalism initiatives, the professionalism course, the Maryland Bar
Journal and other professional publications, networking and keeping up to
date with things,” he adds. Hirshman believes this helps attorneys steer
clear of the AGC. Overall, Bar Counsel’s assessment is that “Maryland
continues to be a strong Bar with few problems.”
“The largest percent of grievances always involve an attorney’s lack of
adequate communication or delays in communication with clients,” Bar
Counsel continues. He believes our high-tech society contributes to this
trend. “Technology is an issue here.”
“Today’s public is more sophisticated, knows how and where to file
complaints against lawyers and what to complain about,” asserts Bar
Counsel. “A common complaint we hear from lawyers is that in today’s
high-tech world where so many people have e-mail, clients expect
instantaneous results and instant communication from lawyers. This is not
realistic, and it really puts pressure on lawyers.” He considers this
dilemma “a sign of the times that puts an extra burden on lawyers.”
The report indicates that 168 docketed complaints involved communication,
competence and diligence, 53 dealt with the safekeeping of property and 39
concerned fees. Again this year, the law practice areas drawing the most
docketed complaints are personal injury and workers compensation (18
percent) and family law (12 percent), followed by criminal law (14
percent) and civil litigation (14 percent). There were 16 docketed
complaints involving the unauthorized practice of law. In terms of
sanctions, 22 were disbarred, 23 were suspended and most of the others
involved public reprimands.
According to the report, 14 of the 22 disbarments involved financial
issues. “Our biggest concern is the improper handling of client funds,”
reports Hirshman. “This is very serious and leads to disciplinary action.
We are also seeing an increasing number of attorneys suffering from mental
illness and depression, probably due to the nature of stress in today’s
law practice and our bad economic times.” Many of these attorneys are
referred to MSBA’s Lawyer Assistance Program.
In general, Bar Counsel is pleased with the new disciplinary rules, which
took effect on July 1, 2001, and he feels they have streamlined the
state’s attorney discipline process. “The new rules are moving things
along much more rapidly,” Hirshman reports. The AGC must now complete its
initial investigation into a complaint within 90 days.
To avoid consumer complaints, Bar Counsel offers advice to Maryland’s Bar.
He recommends that today’s attorney limit the number of legal fields that
he or she handles. “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. It is
hard to be a generalist and remain proficient in all areas today.”
In addition, Hirshman advises lawyers to do the following:
Have a written fee agreement.
Maintain regular communication with the client.
Be selective in choosing clients (know which ones not to take).
Know when to withdraw from a case (and do it early).
Conduct regular billing.
Make sure that the client understands exactly what you are charging for
and encourage him or her to raise questions about fees early on.
Step into the client’s shoes and understand what it is to be a client.
Hirshman also encourages all Maryland lawyers to join local and state bar
associations and attend meetings.