Facing disciplinary proceedings and the possibility of losing your professional license to practice law can be stressful and downright terrifying. The penalties for attorneys who run afoul of ethics rules range from a proverbial slap on the wrist, such as probation or reprimand, all the way to disbarment, i.e., losing their professional license to practice law.
With your livelihood at stake, there’s no question that you should have legal representation as early in the process as possible. You know that old saying about how the person who represents himself has a fool for a client? It’s an old saying because it’s true, especially when we’re talking about a lawyer dealing with the State Bar’s disciplinary process.
In other words: Yes, even lawyers need lawyers, especially when your law license is at risk.
Although your situation may not involve something as salacious as a tell-all book about an internationally famous criminal case, being accused of an ethical violation as an attorney is always serious. Along with getting legal counsel, you should also know as much about the disciplinary process as possible from the get-go, especially so you don’t miss any important deadlines.
Attorney Disciplinary Process in Arizona
The State Bar of Arizona handles attorney registrations, licenses and disciplinary procedures for violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
When someone files a charge of misconduct, unprofessional behavior, or incapacity against an Arizona lawyer, a lawyer for the State Bar reviews the complaint to determine whether to pursue an investigation. This is called the “prescreening” process.
The next step is “screening,” which comes after a determination that an investigation is warranted. During screening, bar counsel prepares a written notice of the allegations for the attorney and requests a written response within 20 days. Bar counsel sends a copy of the attorney’s response to the complainant and may also request more information to better understand the circumstances surrounding the charge.
At this stage, the Bar assigns an investigator to the case, who, along with bar counsel, researches the claim to arrive at a recommendation regarding the charge. Bar counsel prepares an investigative report for the Attorney Discipline Probable Cause Committee, which will decide the next course of action. Bar counsel may recommend any of the following:
- Probable cause to file a complaint
- Probable cause to file a disability petition
If the Committee decides there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the lawyer violated ethics rules, it will issue a “probable cause order,” and the case will move to formal disciplinary proceedings. The Committee will file a complaint with the Disciplinary Clerk to which the lawyer has 20 days to respond.
The Arizona State bar requires a mandatory settlement conference before every disciplinary hearing, during which the parties may resolve the matter. If there is no agreement, the next step is a formal hearing before a panel that includes the Presiding Disciplinary Judge, a lawyer and a member of the public.
Potential Disciplinary Actions
After the hearing, the panel will prepare a written report detailing its findings of fact, conclusions of law and an order including the sanction to be applied, if any.
The panel may dismiss the charge if it finds no ethical violation. If the panel finds a violation, there are a few possibilities as to what comes next for the attorney.
Less serious violations or issues related to client interaction may be referred to the State’s Attorney/Consumer Assistance Program, designed to resolve issues between attorneys and clients.
In situations that involve “incivility or unprofessionalism toward clients or others” but where there was no violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the State Bar may choose to refer the attorney to one or more of the state’s diversion programs, which are designed to help attorneys manage issues related to chemical dependency, poor management skills, or other issues that may be resolved through behavioral changes.
Arizona’s diversion programs are as follows:
- Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP)
- Member Assistance Program (MAP)
- Trust Account Ethics Enhancement Program (TAEEP)
- Trust Account Program (TAP)
If an attorney successfully completes the required diversion program, the disciplinary charge will be dismissed.
Aside from the above repercussions, Arizona attorneys may also face several different sanctions for violations of the bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct, including:
- Payment of restitution
- Payment of assessed costs
Both the lawyer and complainant may appeal the decision of the panel to the state’s Supreme Court by filing a notice of appeal with the disciplinary clerk. The parties must follow the procedures outlined by the Supreme Court regarding appellate briefs and oral arguments.
How an Attorney Can Help
An attorney experienced in law license defense can make sure your rights are protected throughout every step of the disciplinary process. You need someone on your side who can develop a strong case on your behalf to better ensure a positive resolution, whether it’s a lesser penalty or dismissal of the charges altogether.
At Arizona Law Group, we will fight for your rights during the disciplinary process and do our best to ensure your professional reputation remains intact. Give us a call at (602) 548-3400 or send us a message today if you are facing potential disciplinary action by the Arizona State Bar