General Counsel on www.OKbar.org

Grievances and How to Avoid Them

By Gina Hendryx, General Counsel

Upon becoming general counsel of the OBA, I was intrigued to learn which practice areas of law were receiving the most grievances and what types of complaints were routinely being lodged against attorneys. It was not surprising to learn that 43 percent of the complaints in 2008 were in matters relating to criminal law and family law representations. And, this was not an aberration.

Year after year, these two areas of practice consistently receive the most complaints. While still disconcerting especially if these are your two primary areas of practice, it is understandable given the nature of the legal needs facing a criminal defendant or family law litigant. There are arguably no other areas of law wherein the parties find themselves with more at risk albeit either loss of liberty or family.

THE #1 COMPLAINT

The primary complaint charged against Oklahoma attorneys continues to be client/file neglect. One of every two grievances filed with the Office of the General Counsel alleges dissatisfaction due to the attorney’s failure to respond to client inquiries or the delay in moving the matter to conclusion. In 2008, 49 percent of the grievances received were categorized as “neglect” complaints followed by 13 percent based upon the personal behavior of the attorney and 11 percent alleging some form of misrepresentation by the lawyer.

What can be learned from these statistics? First, if you practice in the areas of family law or criminal law the likelihood of receiving a bar complaint is high. Regardless of practice area, the most common complaint will be that you have failed to keep the client informed and/or are taking too long to achieve a result. This information is not novel. As attorneys, we have been repeatedly warned of the risks of procrastination. There are a wealth of classes, seminars, books and opportunities to address your own shortcomings when it comes to personal work habits. In addition, you should also be directing your client’s expectations. From the initial client intake, discuss such issues as return of phone calls, return of e-mail and expected length of the representation. Set realistic response time with your clients.

Tell the client when you return phone calls and e-mail. Repeat the information in the representation agreement. If the client has been told and has a document that explains that e-mails are most often returned within 24 hours of receipt, then the client will not have an expectation of a response within a couple of hours. The same approach should be taken with cell phones. If you don’t want a client calling you on Saturday evening when the visitation exchange was been delayed, then don’t give out your cell number. Give the client information on office numbers and hours and what to do if they perceive there is an emergency. If you set personal goals to be responsive to client’s concerns within reasonable parameters and give the client sufficient information to set realistic expectations, you will reduce the risk of receiving a complaint of client neglect.

During 2008, the Office of the General Counsel received 283 formal grievances involving 201 attorneys and 1,239 informal grievances involving 885 attorneys. In total, 1,522 grievances were received against 988 attorneys. The total number of attorneys differs because some attorneys received both formal and informal grievances. The OBA membership on Dec. 31, 2008, was 16,275 attorneys.

Considering the total membership, the receipt of 1,522 grievances involving 988 attorneys constituted approximately six percent of the attorneys licensed to practice law by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. This is a small fraction of our membership, and the statistic that should not be lost is that 94 percent of OBA attorneys did not receive a complaint in 2008. Too often we dwell on the negative because that is what gets the most attention. However, a review of the 2008 stats should highlight the positive hard work being done every day by Oklahoma attorneys for their clients.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Nov. 21, 2009 -- Vol. 80, No. 31