Although consumer complaints against lawyers traditionally increase in tough economic times, those in Maryland have sharply declined. In the last year, while attorneys and their clients struggled through the recession, grievances filed against Maryland lawyers went down significantly, and the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland (AGC) credits MSBA’s emphasis on civility, ethics and professionalism as a major contributing factor. The drop in consumer complaints against Maryland lawyers is quite positive in light of the recession and the large number of Maryland lawyers now practicing in the state.
In its recently released Annual Report, the AGC “attributes many of these positive (grievance) 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 have contributed to this positive direction.”
“All of these programs alert attorneys to their ethical obligations and the Court’s increasing concern over the lack of civility in the legal profession,” declares Bar Counsel Mel Hirshman. “All of the Bar’s efforts are having an impact on the profession. Overall, Maryland has an excellent Bar.”
According to The Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland’s 34th Annual Report (July 1, 2008 – June 30, 2009), the number of docketed complaints fell to 353, down from 406 the previous year, while the number of attorneys in Maryland jumped from 33,400 to 34,569. The number of grievances not requiring an investigation also dropped, from 1,647 to 1,532. The majority of these involve lack of attorney communication, most relating to e-communication, but even here, there was a dramatic decline – 91 to 37. Hirshman believes attorneys are doing a better job of communicating with their clients in a regular and timely manner.
In today’s high-tech world, clients are increasingly sophisticated, and this means clients are more demanding and expect instantaneous responses. “When clients e-mail an attorney, they expect an instantaneous return e-mail, even though this is unrealistic and unreasonable,” Hirshman explains, “and most of these complaints are dismissed as unfounded.”
However, this is the wave of the future, so Hirshman advises lawyers to take this under advisement. “Clients are more aggressive and demanding, and with today’s technology, attorneys can easily communicate with their clients.” He reminds attorneys to always return client calls and urges them to respond to electronic communications in a timely fashion.
In terms of law practice areas, civil litigation attracted the most complaints against practitioners at 56, followed by family law at 54, personal injury at 49 and criminal law at 46. Geographically speaking, Montgomery County lawyers had the most complaints lodged against them with 71, followed by Baltimore County with 60, Prince George’s County 53 and Baltimore City with 52; four counties – Caroline, Garrett, Somerset and Talbot – had none.
Of the 63 disciplinary actions in’08-’09: competent representation, diligence, communication, negligence and abiding by the client’s decision accounted for 16; misconduct, dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation 10; misconduct – prejudicial to administration of justice or unauthorized practice of law each claimed seven; misappropriation of client funds eight; and failure to maintain complete records, account to client or others, maintain trust account or safeguard funds had five. A total of 18 attorneys were suspended, five disbarred and 11 disbarred by consent.
The consumer trend of declining grievances in the recent AGC Annual Report documents the latest in a series of positive trends. 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.”
“There will always be a few ‘bad apples,’” concludes Hirshman, “but they are few and far between. The number of Maryland lawyers continues to go up, and those involved with the AGC represent a very, very small percentage, less than ½ of one percent.”