Attorneys can face serious sanction for professional misconduct. But recent data from Bloomberg Law indicates that increased ethics knowledge, greater emphasis on continuing education and other changes in the profession may reduce complaints and discipline against attorneys. California was one of five large states reporting ongoing drops in complaints and sanctions in their most recent annual discipline reports.
States have different measures for reporting and analyzing disciplinary data. But California reported a drop in its discipline rate from four per 1,000 attorneys in 2011 to 1.4 in 2021.
In addition to the steps addressing legal ethics, a drop in legal activity for 2020-2021 may have led to a reduced number of complaints. Florida, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and New Jersey were four other large states with reduced complaints and sanctions.
Across the nation, the number of lawyers increased by over eight percent to 1.3 million between 2020 and 2021, according to the American Bar Association. Only a small percentage of attorneys are investigated for misconduct or disciplined. Sanctions usually range from license suspension to reprimand. But hundred of attorneys are also disbarred each year in this country.
The growing proportion of women in the legal profession may play a role in the decline in discipline. California, Texas and Illinois have reported substantially lower ethics and professional responsibility claims against women. The California State Bar cited exposure to risks and fewer women acting as solo practitioners for the difference in these disciplinary rates.
Age may also play a role. Older veteran attorneys are more likely to violate ethics rules than younger attorneys. The younger population of lawyers has more female members.
Education and other actions
Lawyers and firms have increased knowledge invested more in risk management. Liability insurers have free ethics hot lines and lawyers must report their continuing legal education requirements.
More stringent penalties were also imposed for violations that were lightly sanctioned in the past. Increased ethics education and understanding the connection between substance abuse, stress and professional burnout with misconduct have also led to the decline in violations.
Attorneys can assist other lawyers with legal ethics and practice management. They can also help protect their rights in disciplinary and reinstatement proceedings.