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Lawyer Discipline

HALT's Lawyer Accountability Project is a major reform effort to strengthen consumer protections that apply to the attorney discipline system.

More than 30 years ago, retired Justice Tom Clark of the United States Supreme Court examined the system of lawyer discipline for the American Bar Association and reported a "scandalous situation" that required "the immediate attention of the profession." The Clark Committee pointed out that a panel of lawyers, rather than judges or lay persons, were running the disciplinary system. The Committee charged that this institutional bias rendered the system ineffective.

Twenty-two years later, an American Bar Association commission chaired by academic Robert McKay found that the public held a "growing mistrust of secret, self-regulated systems of lawyer discipline." The Commission noted that where elected bar officials controlled all or parts of a state disciplinary system, a conflict of interest was created. Ultimately, the Commission reported that the public viewed lawyer discipline as "too slow, too secret, too soft, and too self-regulated."

Despite decades of repeated calls for reform, nothing has changed. HALT's 2006 Lawyer Discipline Report Card reveals a system of self-regulation that is still badly broken and in need of urgent reform.

Today, if an attorney discipline agency in this country imposes any discipline, more often than not it takes the form of a slap on the wrist. While some jurisdictions are beginning to make their disciplinary services better known to the public, many states remain hopelessly stranded in the dark ages, without websites or listings in local telephone directories. Agencies deprive consumers of basic information about their lawyer's discipline history.

In many states, disciplinary hearings are held in secret and a few jurisdictions forbid even the person who filed the complaint to attend. Many consumers fear that if they submit grievances, their lawyers may sue them, and when individuals do have the courage to file a complaint, state "gag rules" punish them with fines and imprisonment if they speak about the grievance. State agencies delay filing formal charges against attorneys and if a hearing regarding a lawyer's ethical violations does occur, the judge and jury consists of fellow lawyers.