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So, Your Client Complained to the State Bar. What Now?

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on August 04, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's doubtful that anyone got into this business to be liked. Still, client complaints are not something you ever anticipate. Complaints by clients can be disheartening and even career-threatening -- especially when the state bar gets involved.

In this piece, we briefly go over how and why attorneys find themselves in hot water when representing a client. It goes without saying: tread carefully or else your career as an attorney could end faster than you thought.

The Trouble Client

If you practice law long enough, it is inevitable that a client will have some complaint about you. Every so often, you end up with that nightmare client who decides to twist the knife -- regardless of whether or not your firm delivered amazing results.

The client has the option to open a complaint against an attorney, usually at your jurisdiction's state bar website. From there, the state bar will make the judgment call whether or not to push the matter based on the content of the client's complaint. In general, a good many complaints by clients involve allegations of inadequate representation. These are less of an issue than -- you guessed it -- money.

According to Jerome Fishkin (whose practices focuses on ethics issues exclusively) an ethics case that reaches the state bar (in California) you will automatically get an inquiry from the bar asking for an explanation. In this situation, you might be left with no choice but to represent yourself pro-per or get professional help.

Keep Your Trap Shut -- Unless Asked

If the client has already brought the matter to the state bar, now things have gotten serious.

In general, it pays to keep your mouth closed unless asked directly. And even then it's advisable that you hire a professional to do the talking for you. Many attorneys who find themselves in the unenviable position of being investigated try to mitigate the damage by over-explaining. Although this strategy is probably even advisable at moral-character and fitness stage, it could cause more problems at the inquiry stage.

When assessing moral-character and fitness, the various state bars are assessing your candor and honesty. When you're already an attorney, the state is looking for ways to get you. In the sage words of Fishkin, "People do not become State Bar prosecutors to help attorneys."

In California at least, you will get a letter from the California State Bar investigator asking for your side of the story as well as documents and an explanation. Although you are obligated ethically and statutorily to cooperate, "cooperate" does not mean falling on your sword before the investigator. Remember, he is not your friend.

Take heart, Fishkin says that at this stage, no news is good news and that most investigations are closed with no adverse action. This is probably due to the fact that many clients start complaining about attorneys based on facts that would not support proper attorney discipline.

Prevention Is the Key: Diligence

Client dissatisfaction is pretty much inevitable -- just live with it. What you can do is be professional. Keep diligent records, stay on top of your accounts and deadlines, do good work, charge reasonable fees, and keep open lines of communication with the client. To avoid future complaints, you don't need to be superhuman, just extra diligent.

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