There has been a dramatic decline in the number of complaints lodged against Maryland lawyers that are docketed for further investigation. In the last two years, these complaints have dropped 25 percent, at a time when Maryland is welcoming an additional 1,000+ attorneys every year. The Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland (AGC) reports a “continuation of positive trends” with respect to lawyer discipline in the state, and credits the support services sponsored by Maryland’s bar associations and the legal community with this positive direction.
According to the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland’s 32th Annual Report, covering July 1, 2006 to June 30, 2007, the total number of cases docketed for further investigation fell from 469 in FY 05 to 400 in FY 06 to 351 this fiscal year. The AGC attributes this successful record to everything from MSBA’s Professionalism Course for new admittees, strong attendance at CLE programs and state and local bar associations’ and law school’s emphasis on ethics and professionalism to the state’s various legal publications and the dissemination of disciplinary cases heard by the Court of Appeals of Maryland.
“This report shows that overall, Maryland has an excellent Bar,” declares Bar Counsel Melvin Hirshman. “When you compare Maryland’s 33,018 practicing attorneys with the total number of sanctioned attorneys, it is a very, very small percentage, indeed.” Although the number of complaints filed against lawyers was up slightly this year, from 1,444 in ‘06 to 1589 in ‘07, the number of docketed complaints, as indicated above, dropped sharply.
Client communication remains the most common consumer complaint against Maryland lawyers. Today, the AGC reports that these complaints most often involve e-mail communication with attorneys. In our contemporary, high-tech world, consumers expect immediate electronic access to everything, including their attorney. They demand instantaneous responses. When they e-mail their attorney repeatedly and don’t get a response, many lodge a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission.
“We have an increasing number of grievances involving complaints about unanswered e-mails to lawyers,” explains Bar Counsel. “Clients simply demand an instantaneous return e-mail. Of course, this is totally unreasonable, and most of these complaints are dismissed as unfounded, but this is the wave of the future and something with which lawyers must deal.”
There was a slight rise in the number of complaints in immigration law this year, Hirshman observed, and a decline in those dealing with bankruptcy. Bar Counsel added that “with the Court’s adoption of the new attorney record-keeping Rule on January 1, 2008, the AGC will see a reduction in the number of trust account complaints against lawyers in the future.”
Again this year, most disciplinary actions (74 total) fell into the area of “competent representation, diligence, communication, negligence and abiding by the client’s decision,” at 19; followed by misconduct, dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation, at 11; “theft of client’s funds, estate funds, fiduciary funds or law firm funds” and misconduct prejudicial to the administration of justice or the unauthorized practice of law, both at nine; and failure to maintain complete records, account to client or others, maintain trust account or safeguard funds, at five.
In terms of law practice areas (400 total), personal injury/workers compensation attracted the most complaints against practitioners at 48, followed by civil litigation at 44, family law at 41, real estate at 27, criminal law at 24 and bankruptcy at 11. Geographically speaking, Prince George’s County lawyers had the most complaints lodged against them with 61, followed by Frederick County with 60 and Montgomery with 58. Caroline, Dorchester and Kent Counties had 0.
While there will always be a “few bad apples in any profession,” Hirshman credits MSBA’s professionalism course with “having quite an effect in helping attorneys with ethics and with the general practice of law.” He also finds Maryland lawyers are “very attentive to professional publications like the Maryland Bar Journal and MICPEL and local bar association CLE programs,” which help them steer clear of the Attorney Grievance Commission.
To avoid consumer complaints, Bar Counsel advises attorneys to limit the number of legal fields they handle. “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.” Bar Counsel also encourages all Maryland lawyers to join the Maryland State Bar Association and their local bar and actively participate in them.