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Where Can I File a Complaint Against My Lawyer?

Clients expect their attorneys to provide the best representation possible. The American Bar Association expects that, too. The Rules of Professional Conduct, used by every state bar association, define the ethical and professional behavior required of attorneys.

If a lawyer violates these ethical rules or a client has other complaints, the state bar or the state's disciplinary counsel takes over. Clients who suffer a monetary loss because of their attorney's misconduct can file a legal malpractice lawsuit to recover damages.

Types of Attorney Complaints

An old lawyer's joke involves clients who are only happy when they win. This may be true, but sometimes, clients have valid reasons to complain about their lawyers. Some of the most common complaints involve lack of communication, fee disputes, and negligent lawyer conduct.

You can resolve some client-attorney disputes simply by finding another attorney. The attorney-client relationship is no different than any other relationship, and some people don't get along. Other times, the attorney may not have the right qualifications for the case, or the client misunderstood the fee agreement. This is not unethical conduct.

Professional misconduct occurs when the attorney's actions seriously affect the outcome of the case or violate attorney-client privilege. These actions can include:

  • Conflicts of interest between the current client and former clients, business associates, or other attorneys
  • Failure to communicate important information about the case, such as settlement offers, plea offers, or hearing dates
  • Misrepresentation about the facts in the case or the attorney's qualifications
  • Fraud or misallocation of client funds (known as "commingling" funds)

You should report these actions to the disciplinary board or the bar association.

How to File a Complaint

Each state has a disciplinary board or counsel that reviews attorney complaints. The board may operate through the state bar or may be independent. Although each state's procedures are slightly different, most follow this basic outline:

  • You may make your initial complaint by letter, phone, or online complaint form. The disciplinary board website explains what information it needs on the initial complaint. There may be a follow-up call or email for additional information.
  • The board reviews the complaint to determine if there has been misconduct or an ethical violation. Just because you are unhappy with your attorney's behavior may not mean there was a breach of the rules of conduct.
  • If there was no professional misconduct, the investigators close the complaint. You will receive a letter explaining why.
  • If the review finds misconduct, the board begins a full investigation. You should get a notification about this from the investigator. The investigation may or may not confirm there was misconduct. If the investigation closes, the attorney may still get a warning to correct whatever behavior caused the original complaint.
  • If the investigation confirms the misconduct, the case either settles with an agreement for disciplinary action or goes before the State Bar Court or a similar body for trial and a verdict on discipline.

At each stage of the disciplinary process, the attorney has the right to respond to the charges. In some states, such as Louisiana, you can appeal the dismissal of the complaint to the state supreme court. The attorney always has the right to appeal any verdict or ruling against them.

Outcomes of Attorney Complaints

Attorneys are understandably unhappy when a client files a complaint against them. A grievance committee or board reviews all complaints, and the attorney gets a notification of all investigations. All disciplinary action appears on the attorney's public profile with the state bar. An attorney faces increasing levels of discipline for failing their professional responsibility.


"Sanctions" are a blanket term for disciplinary actions. Any discipline may be a sanction, whether an order to perform pro bono service or suspension of the right to practice law. Sanctions can include fines, repayment of misused funds, or remedial law classes.


A reprimand may be public or private. It is a formal documentation of attorney discipline for misconduct or unethical behavior. A private reprimand is still noted on an attorney's record, and the state bar can see it, but potential clients cannot. A public reprimand is visible on the attorney's state bar profile.


Like any other case, an attorney charged with misconduct can be released with restrictions on their behavior. If they show they can correct their behavior and not do it again, they can return to the practice of law without further discipline.


Suspensions are the second most severe penalty for misconduct. A suspension may last from 90 days to several years. During that time, the attorney may not provide legal services or represent any client in legal proceedings. A suspension is like disbarment, except it has an end date.


The most severe penalty for ethical violations and misconduct is disbarment. When an attorney is disbarred, their name is removed from the rolls of active attorneys in their state. Some states, such as California, flag the attorney's name on their state bar attorney search and post consumer alerts notifying potential clients of the attorney's involuntary removal from practice.

Removal in one state does not prevent an attorney from practicing in other states if they are already licensed there, but it may prevent them from becoming attorneys in different states. Disbarment proceedings are part of the public record.

When You Need to File An Attorney Complaint

The complaint process can take a long time. Before filing an attorney grievance, find a new lawyer. The complaint will upset your attorney, and in many states, your attorney cannot represent you during the investigation. If you have a legal matter pending, contact a lawyer referral service for other representation.

You may want legal advice about the issue with your attorney. The state bar can only take action if your attorney has violated the rules of professional conduct, but that does not mean you don't have a legal case. If you've suffered monetary damages because your lawyer mishandled the case, you may have grounds for a legal malpractice claim. You need a lawyer to sue a lawyer, so start looking for help now.

Finally, don't let your emotions block your common sense. Your attorney does legal work for you. You deserve the best result you can get for your money. The legal profession agrees that your attorney should follow specific rules and guidelines. Look for a legal malpractice attorney near you who can answer your questions.

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