How to Avoid Ethics Complaints in Georgia

Ethics complaints (grievances in the vernacular of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct) are at best time consuming and stressful, and at worst can result in a reprimand, suspension or disbarment, permanently part of your publically accessible record.  Nobody wants that, but is it avoidable?  Yes.  Most lawyers go their entire careers without a grievance.  How do they do it?  In this post and one to follow, we will look at some key preventive measures reflecting the most common causes of ethics complaints, which not surprisingly usually come from clients.
  1. RETURN PHONE CALLS; RESPOND TO TEXTS AND EMAILS

Being unresponsive to client contact is probably the single most common trigger for ethics complaints. And by the time that happens, the client usually has a lot more to say as well, so timely communication is every lawyer’s best preventive habit.  Keeping some kind of written record of your communications for later reference will also serve you well.

There often is nothing new to say about the client’s case, so from the lawyer’s perspective, with everything else you have to do, having to say that repeatedly can seem like a waste of time.  Or the client may be “high maintenance,” demanding repetitive explanations, or hand holding tenuously if at all related to advancing the case. But from the client’s perspective, having a responsive lawyer is reassuring and helps cement a trusting relationship, while silence is aggravating and fosters doubts about the lawyer’s attention and commitment to the case and client.  So time spent now returning calls, emails and texts can go a long way to avoiding headaches later.  GRPC Rule 1.4 actually requires it in most instances, mandating among other things, ”keep[ing] the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter; [and] “promptly comply[ing] with reasonable requests for information.”

You should be pro-active, too.  Discussing your mutual expectations about communication at the beginning of the representation will help assure you’re both using the same playbook.  Inherent delays like those built into litigation can be explained in advance, along with reasons why you often are not the master of your own schedule (e.g., judges, actions of the adverse party, rules, motions, etc.), which can parry some potential misunderstandings and concerns in advance.  Routinely send the client copies of correspondence and documents, and take the initiative to contact the client periodically, even if only to say that there is nothing new to report. Finally, while it’s OK for your staff to try to answer inquiries initially and/or when you are not available, most clients will eventually and understandably rebel if they never hear directly from the lawyer they hired to represent them; and, of course, some inquiries can only be addressed by a lawyer.

  1. BE CANDID AND REALISTIC WITH YOUR CLIENTS

Help your client have realistic expectations from the beginning about time frames and outcomes, and the fact that neither is completely within your control. Never guarantee a time for completion, or an outcome. Always initiate prompt client notification of any adverse or unexpected development in the case, with appropriate explanations about what happened, why, and the effect going forward. A client who you’ve led to expect the moon in 30 days, or who only finds out about an adverse turn of events later or from another source, will have a predictable and justified opinion about their lawyer.

Be candid and realistic with yourself, too.  It’s hard to do, especially for solo and small practices, but you must learn to say no at the beginning.  If you find yourself thinking that you wouldn’t ordinarily take the case – e.g., maybe it’s obviously weak, or you get a bad vibe from the potential client – but you really need the business, don’t take the case.  You will come to regret it if you do, even if it doesn’t generate a grievance.

  1. BE DILIGENT

Don’t let your cases stagnate. There will be plenty of unavoidable delays, so don’t add to them unnecessarily. Rule 1.3 states that “[a] lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.” The rule defines that requirement in terms of abandonment, but excessive delay can and often does constitute abandonment.  In litigation, violating the Rule 3.2 requirement of making “reasonable efforts to expedite litigation consistent with the interests of the client” often accompanies Rule 1.3 violations.  (The dog case you now realize you should never have accepted deserves special mention.  You know the one!  Not only is it a prime candidate for natural neglect, it’s also the most likely to end with a dissatisfied client. Bite the bullet and finish it, or withdraw before too much time passes.)

Critically, never give your client fabricated reasons for delays, or say you did something (like a filing) that you didn’t do. That can violate Rule 8.4(a)(4)’s prohibition against dishonesty, a very serious infraction.

Next time, we will discuss tools to help deal with the above concerns before sharing some additional actions that can help avoid Bar complaints.