Relax. Take a deep breath. Clear your head. It may be startling to receive a letter of investigation from the California State Bar, but you want to keep perspective. You want to take the investigation seriously, but it doesn’t need to be cause for panic.
The State Bar exists to uphold the standards for justice throughout California. In accordance with that mission, it reviews all the complaints people file against the state’s attorneys. In 2018, the State Bar received nearly 16,000 complaints. Only 661 led to disciplinary action. That suggests the odds are in your favor. But you also want to respond the right way.
Understanding the process
If you’re under investigation, it pays to understand the investigatory process and the different steps where you can help or harm your case. As the State Bar outlines it, the process features six key stages:
- A complaint is filed. Anyone can file a complaint. Current clients. Former clients. Other members of the legal profession. The fact someone files a complaint doesn’t make it legitimate.
- State Bar review. If the complaint clearly has no merit or doesn’t address an ethical failure, it will close the complaint. If the State Bar finds grounds for further review, it continues.
- Your response. When you receive notice, you have a chance to relate your side of the story, complete with documentation. If your response is compelling, the State Bar may close its complaint.
- Full investigation. If it finds evidence of a serious ethical violation, the State Bar will review the matter more closely. It will look at the facts of the case and may conduct interviews. If the State Bar suspects the complaint involves criminal activity, it may notify the appropriate law enforcement agency.
- State Bar Court. If the State Bar files charges against you, you can argue your case before the State Bar Court.
- California Supreme Court. The California Supreme Court has the last word in suspension, disbarment and other forms of attorney discipline.
While some of these steps may lie outside your control, that only reinforces the need to act clearly and convincingly where you can. Attorneys who fail to respond to disciplinary matters in a timely fashion can be held accountable by default.
The value of good counsel
It’s important to remember that as the State Bar moves through its process, it follows a specific set of rules. As an attorney, you might be tempted to manage your own defense. You might even do a good job of it. But just like you’d want a specialist performing your surgery, you may want specialized counsel to get you through the State Bar’s investigatory process.