As lawyers increase, so do complaints Panel's report lists 53 cases involving disciplinary action FTC

November 28, 1995|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

As the lawyer population increases in Maryland, so do the number of complaints lodged against lawyers.

Last year, disgruntled clients and others filed 2,224 complaints about attorneys. A year ago, the figure was 2,211, and 10 years ago it was 1,397.

Those figures closely track the number of lawyers in the state. The figure was 23,224 last year compared with 16,063 a decade ago.

The information comes from the annual report of the Attorney Grievance Commission, the state entity that investigates, and, at times, prosecutes lawyers for violating ethical rules.

The report tracks the commission's work during the fiscal year from July 1994 to June 1995. It gives statistics on topics ranging from the number of lawyers disbarred in Maryland last year (15) to the number of complaints received against lawyers in Dorchester County (two).

"The public always has concern about lawyers because it seems the lawyers who don't obey the rules of professional conduct are the ones who make the news, but the vast majority of lawyers treat their clients professionally," said Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel.

Although complaints against lawyers continue to increase, there are indications of improvement in some areas. Last year, the number of docketed complaints -- those the commission investigated further -- declined from 736 to 630.

The commission does not pursue complaints when there are no violations of the code of professional conduct. The rules apply in a range of cases, including conflict of interest, excessive fees and co-mingling of lawyer and client monies.

"When somebody complains to our office, other than somebody perhaps who has a mental illness, they're always sincere in their belief they have a grievance. But not all grievances violate our rules of professional conduct," Mr. Hirshman said.

The number of complaints regarding lawyer advertising also dropped, to 93 from 245.

Most of the advertising infractions two years ago involved lawyers working on contingency fees. The lawyers failed to observe a rule requiring them to state in their advertisements whether they billed expenses of their cases to clients.

For the minor infraction, the lawyers received warning letters from the commission.

Complaints to the Attorney Grievance Commission can lead to penalties ranging from private warnings to the filing of public charges against the lawyer. In the latter case, sanctions could be indefinite suspension or being disbarred.

In this year's report, the commission lists the 53 cases in which disciplinary action was taken against lawyers last year, and the types of lawyer misconduct.

Lawyers were sanctioned last year for theft of client funds (nine times), for misconduct, including dishonesty or fraud (six times), incompetence of representation, including diligence and neglect (14 times) and conflict of interest (two times), the report said.

The names of these lawyers are not listed in the report. In Maryland, the attorney grievance process is secret. The names of misbehaving lawyers are protected in all but the most egregious cases.

Baltimore was the runaway winner among jurisdictions where complaints were filed against lawyers last year. The city accounted for 195 complaints, more than twice the number of any other county, according to the report.

Complaints

The number of complaints filed against lawyers over the last 10 years:

Year ... ... ... ... Complaints

1985-86 ... .... ... 1,397

1986-87 ... .... ... 1,531

1987-88 ... .... ... 1,438

1988-89 ... .... ... 1,555

1989-90 ... .... ... 1,670

1990-91 ... .... ... 1,765

1991-92 ... .... ... 1,859

1992-93 ... .... ... 2,035

1993-94 ... .... .... 2,211

1994-95 ... .... .... 2,224

Source: Attorney Grievance Commission

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