Regarding Complaints of Professional Misconduct Against Attorneys Licensed in Texas

The Office of the General Counsel of the State Bar of Texas distributes a brochure titled "Attorney Complaint Information" which is designed to answer some common questions about the State Bar's disciplinary process. The Texas Ethics Reporter publishes opinions about attorney ethics and disciplinary actions to facilitate understanding in this area.

"All lawyers in Texas have an obligation to maintain a high standard of ethical conduct toward their clients and others. To enforce this standard, the State Bar of Texas investigates and prosecutes complaints of professional misconduct against attorneys licensed in Texas." -- From the first page of the brochure "Attorney Complaint Information." Below are set forth the Questions and Answers from the brochure. Any references in the answers to "our" are references to the State Bar of Texas authorities. If you have any further questions about this process, please call the Office of the General Counsel of the State Bar of Texas at 1-800-932-1900 toll-free.

Q:__What rules of professional conduct are lawyers required to follow?

A:__The written rules of professional conduct for lawyers are contained in the Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct (for misconduct occurring on or after January 1, 1990). Copies of these rules may be obtained free of charge by coming by any one of our 10 offices, or can be mailed to you for a $5.00 postage and handling fee. Please call 1-800-932-1900 for the location of our nearest office or mail your postage and handling fee along with name and address to State Bar of Texas, Office of the General Counsel, P.O. Box 12487, Austin, Texas 78711-2487. These rules may also be found in the Texas Government Code (Title 2, Subtitle G-Appendix A, Article 10, section 9), available in most law libraries.

Q:__How can I tell if a rule has been violated?

A:__Any person who believes that a rule of professional conduct has been violated may file a complaint with the State Bar. The State Bar will then examine the complaint and determine whether an actual violation is claimed. Not all disputes or disagreements with lawyers involve professional misconduct, but if you believe misconduct under the rules has occurred, you should file a complaint.

Q:__What can happen to an attorney who commits professional misconduct?

A:__The State Bar punishes lawyers who commit professional misconduct. The nature of the punishment will vary with the seriousness of the misconduct and other factors. Punishment may include private or public reprimands, suspension or disbarment.

Q:__What can the disciplinary process do for me?

A:__The State Bar disciplinary process is intended to protect the general public by punishing lawyers who commit professional misconduct. However, the State Bar cannot force a lawyer to pay a debt. Nor can the State Bar force a lawyer to reduce or refund a fee. The State Bar can punish a lawyer for failing to return a client's file, but cannot force a lawyer to return the file. The State Bar cannot reverse a criminal conviction, even if the conviction was the result of lawyer misconduct. Finally, dissatisfaction with the result achieved by the attorney usually does not involve professional misconduct.

Q:__How do I file a complaint?

A:__First, you must fill out a grievance form, available from the General Counsel's local offices in Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Harlingen, Houston, Midland, San Antonio, and Tyler or by mail by calling 1-800-932-1900. It is important to know that signing the grievance form waives the attorney-client privilege, which would otherwise keep discussions between your lawyer and you confidential. Waiver of this privilege is necessary for the State Bar to review your complaint. To file your grievance form, send it to the General Counsel's local office nearest you. If you have any questions about where to send your form, call 1-800-932-1900. Make sure you include copies of all papers important to your complaint. You may attach additional pages if your full complaint cannot be stated on the grievance form.

Q:__Can I file a complaint anonymously?

A:__From time to time, the State Bar of Texas receives anonymous complaints. However, very few of these complaints can be successfully pursued unless the person making the complaint is willing to come forward. A finding of professional misconduct requires evidence and the testimony of the person making the complaint is almost always important evidence.

Q:__How long do I have to file a complaint?

A:__In most cases, you have four years from the time the misconduct occurred to file a complaint.

Q:__What happens after I file a complaint?

A:__Your grievance form will be reviewed by the General Counsel's staff, who will determine whether the conduct you described, if taken as true, involves professional misconduct. If it does, a copy of your complaint will be sent to the lawyer you complained about. He or she then has 30 days to respond to the State Bar in writing. If the conduct you describe is not professional misconduct, you may appeal the dismissal, re-file your complaint with more information, or you may be referred to alternative dispute resolution (such as mediation) or to a local fee dispute committee. Again, it is important to remember that not every dispute or disagreement with a lawyer involves professional misconduct and, therefore, some complaints will be dismissed at this stage.

Q:__If the conduct I complained about alleges professional misconduct, what happens next?

A:__An investigatory hearing will be held by a panel of the local grievance committee of the State Bar. You can expect that the grievance committee will listen to and ask questions of both the lawyer and you. Hearings are usually informal and the procedures will be explained to you.

Q:__How long will the investigatory hearing take?

A:__The time it takes to process a complaint varies, but an investigatory hearing will generally be held within 30 days of the attorney's response to your complaint. If the grievance committee feels that your complaint requires further investigation, the hearing will probably be continued at a future date, after the investigation is complete. You will be invited to appear at each hearing, although your testimony may not always be necessary.

Q:__How will I know what the grievance committee decides?

A:__You will be notified in writing of the committee's decision.

Q:__If I disagree with the result reached at the investigatory hearing, can I appeal?

A:__If any member of the panel at your hearing felt that there was "just cause" to believe that misconduct occurred, you will be notified that you have a right to a new hearing with a different panel of the same committee. No member of the first panel can serve on the second panel. You will be invited to attend the second hearing. The decision of the second panel is not appealable.

Q:__If the grievance committee decides that professional misconduct has occurred, what happens next?

A:__The grievance committee will first try to reach an agreement with the attorney regarding an appropriate punishment. If no agreement can be reached, the complaint then goes either to an evidentiary panel of the grievance committee for a final decision or to state district court.

Q:__What types of punishment can be agreed upon by the grievance committee and the lawyer respondent?

A:__The forms of punishment which may be agreed upon include: (1) a reprimand, which may be public or private; (2) suspension, all or part of which may be probated; (3) disbarment, which means revocation of the attorney's license to practice law; or (4) resignation in lieu of discipline, which has the same effect as disbarment.

Q:__How will I know what kind of punishment has been agreed upon?

A:__You will be notified in writing. If there is a private reprimand, you will be notified of your duty not to reveal that reprimand. At each major step in the process, you will receive from the State Bar a written explanation of what has occurred.

Q:__If the grievance committee and the lawyer cannot agree on an appropriate punishment, what happens next?

A:__If a punishment cannot be agreed upon, the next step is an evidentiary hearing, unless the lawyer chooses to have the case heard in state district court. In either case, the complaint now becomes public. An evidentiary hearing is similar to a trial, except that another panel of the grievance committee will hear the evidence. Evidence may include your testimony, the lawyer's testimony, if he or she chooses to testify, and possibly the testimony of additional witnesses. If the lawyer chooses instead to go to court, the case will be tried within 180 days from the time suit is filed with the court.

Q:__If I disagree with the result reached at the evidentiary hearing, can I appeal?

A:__Yes. An appeal from an evidentiary hearing may be made to the Board of Disciplinary Appeals by you, the lawyer, or the General Counsel of the State Bar.

Q:__What is the Client Security Fund?

A:__The Client Security Fund is a fund created from State Bar dues and other State Bar revenue. Under certain circumstances, clients may be eligible for financial relief from this source. If you feel that your lawyer has stolen your money, please call 1-800-204-2222, ext. 2304 and request a brochure explaining the Client Security Fund. If you feel that you qualify for relief, request an application. Payments from the fund are not made in instances of disputes over the amount of legal fees, dissatisfaction with the results achieved by the attorney, situations where no actual loss of clients funds has occurred and legal malpractice.

Q:__What is the difference between professional misconduct and malpractice?

A:__Though not a legal definition, the basic difference is that professional misconduct refers to a violation of the rules of professional conduct discussed above, while legal malpractice is lawyer negligence as defined by law. Professional misconduct is subject to punishment under the State Bar's disciplinary process, while questions of legal malpractice are frequently resolved by a lawsuit by the client against the attorney. It is possible to commit professional misconduct, but not legal malpractice, and vice-versa.

Q:__What if I have other questions about the disciplinary process?

A:__If you have any further questions, please feel free to call our toll-free number or write the General Counsel's Office at the address below.

Office of the General Counsel
State Bar of Texas
P.O. Box 12487
Austin, Texas 78711-2487
(512) 463-1463
1-800-932-1900 (toll-free)