New rules for lawyer discipline take shape Proposals intended to protect public, streamline process

November 16, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

Disciplining misbehaving lawyers can be an agonizingly slow process.

But no slower, it turns out, than revising the rules that govern the Attorney Grievance Commission in Maryland.

For nearly four years, judges, prosecutors and private-practice lawyers statewide have been scrutinizing the rules, searching for new ways to better protect the public from unscrupulous TTC lawyers.

Yesterday, the effort took a step forward as the rules committee studying proposed changes met to debate their work, the first major overhaul of the state's attorney discipline rules since 1975. By early spring, the group hopes to present its revised rules to the state Court of Appeals, which can approve or reject them.

"We've tried to move in the direction of genuinely protecting the public, not giving them window dressing," said H. Thomas Howell, a Towson lawyer and one of those working on the proposed rules. "We've resisted suggestions that seem to be more for show than substance."

Many of the proposed changes deal with shortening the disciplinary process. It takes an average of two years for complaints to wend their way through the disciplinary system and for public charges to be filed.

That can be improved, said Albert D. Brault, chairman of the subcommittee studying the rules.

"It shouldn't take that long to get a [misbehaving] lawyer off the street," said Brault. "These aren't phoney claims. We're talking about very serious claims of misconduct where there's a very legitimate need to suspend or disbar."

The shortcut proposed by Brault's subcommittee would, in some cases, remove a time-consuming step: the review board.

In the current system, complaints against lawyers are weighed by the grievance commission. Those judged not to be cranks are passed on to an inquiry panel for further review. Last year, only one in four of the 1,532 complaints lodged against lawyers in the state were pursued to that stage.

The next level of scrutiny in the current system is the review board, an 18-member body which hears every case that passes an inquiry panel.

New proposals would cut the number of review board members to nine. Also, the board wouldn't be required to review every case.

The change could trim several months from the disciplinary clock. That's important, says Brault, because it shortens the time wayward attorneys can victimize other clients.

"The potential of a lawyer who has harmed one client to harm others is great," said Brault, a lawyer from Rockville.

Another subcommittee proposal is aimed at reining in lawyers whose conduct is so awful it can't wait for the wheels of the griev- ance commission to turn.

The rules change would give formal powers to bar counsel, the grievance commission's chief prosecutor, to seek court injunctions, thereby suspending the offending lawyer's license. The grievance commission has obtained injunctions in about 12 such cases in the past 10 years, says bar counsel Mel Hirshman. But the proposed rule might strengthen the commission's hand in seeking them.

Hirshman said it was too soon to predict the total effect of the proposed rules.

"We're going to have a discipline system with perhaps fewer steps and a few more tools," he said. "We'll just have to see how it works."

Pub Date: 11/16/96

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