General Counsel on www.OKbar.org

Annual Reports Summarize Discipline Action

By Gina Hendryx, General Counsel

In this issue of the Oklahoma Bar Journal, you will find the 2011 annual reports of the Professional Responsibility Tribunal (PRT) and the Professional Responsibility Commission (PRC). The PRT is the panel of masters who conduct hearings on formal complaints filed against lawyers and on applications for reinstatement to the practice of law. The panel consists of 21 members, 14 of whom are active members in good standing of the Oklahoma Bar Association (OBA) and seven members who are nonlawyers. When a formal complaint or application for reinstatement is filed, the presiding master of the PRT selects three members from the panel to preside over the discipline hearing. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial panel files a written report with the Oklahoma Supreme Court which includes findings of fact on all pertinent issues and conclusions of law and a recommendation as to discipline. In 2011, the PRT conducted a total of 19 hearings including 13 discipline matters and six reinstatement proceedings.

The PRC considers and investigates any alleged ground for discipline or alleged incapacity of any lawyer. The commission consists of seven members, five of whom are active members in good standing of the OBA and two nonlawyers. Under the supervision of the PRC, the office of the general counsel investigates all matters involving alleged misconduct or incapacity of any lawyer called to the attention of the general counsel by grievance or other manner. The PRC determines the disposition of all formal grievances.

The 2011 annual report of the PRC, as compiled by the office of the general counsel, surveys the grievances received, the disposition of same, as well as, the activities of the office during the year.

The Office of the General Counsel received 1,479 complaints against 999 attorneys in 2011. Complaints must be in writing and signed by the complainant. No anonymous complaints are processed. At the end of 2011, the OBA membership was 16,955. Considering the total membership, only 6 percent of the licensed attorneys in the state of Oklahoma received a complaint in 2011. This is fairly consistent with the previous two years and coincides with the national average.

It is always instructive to review which practice areas of law receive the most grievances and what types of complaints are routinely lodged against attorneys. It was not surprising to learn that 45 percent of the complaints in 2011 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 primary complaint lodged against Oklahoma attorneys continues to be client/file neglect. Nearly one out 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 2011, 43 percent of the grievances received were categorized as “neglect” complaints followed by 12 percent based upon the personal behavior of the attorney and 8 percent alleging some form of misrepresentation by the lawyer.

TIPS TO PREVENT A COMPLAINT

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 is 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 clients’ expectations. From the initial client intake, discuss such issues as return of phone calls, return of email and expected length of the representation. Set realistic response time with your clients. Tell the client when you return phone calls and email. Repeat the information in the representation agreement. Call or email even when you have nothing to report. Clients want to know that you are working on their matters and that you are responsive to their concerns.

UNAUTHORIZED PRACTICE OF LAW

In addition to attorney grievances and reinstatement proceedings, the Office of the General Counsel increased its investigations in 2011 of allegations of the unauthorized practice of law. Over 20 requests to review these practices were acted upon in 2011. The majority of referrals came from lawyers and judges and concerned nonlawyers assisting pro se litigants. These investigations involved allegations of improper forms and actual harm to the pro se litigants.

The reports set forth detail the day to day workloads of the PRT, PRC and Office of the General Counsel. Whether investigating discipline matters, prosecuting the unauthorized practice of law, or representing the OBA in nondiscipline matters, these entities work together to promote the practice of law while protecting the public.

Ms. Hendryx is OBA general counsel.

Orignially published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Feb. 11, 2012 --  Vol. 83, No. 12