Legal Ethics

Md. Attorney Discipline Questioned, Decades of Data Disclosed

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Short of committing—or at least plotting—murder, it reportedly hasn’t been easy, historically, for the relatively small number of Maryland lawyers who misbehave professionally to qualify for severe professional discipline.

“Maryland lawyers who plan to murder their spouse or have sex with minors have been swiftly disbarred, but many who repeatedly cheat, lie, steal, abandon their clients or torture animals can do so for years without suffering any real consequence,” writes Capital News Service, based on a review of state Attorney Grievance Commission disciplinary records dating back nearly 80 years. Unlike many states, Maryland makes public attorney discipline records for lawyers who are charged with alleged ethics violations after a commission investigation.

During the past decade, “138 lawyers have been disciplined for theft, 138 for not responding to the commission, 11 for unauthorized practice and four for forging signatures,” the article states. During the same period, lawyers disciplined for “some kind of incompetence” were most frequently suspended, rather than reprimanded or disbarred. “Many had two or three sanctions with as many complaints, spanning up to six years.”

However, docketed complaints against Maryland attorneys are at a 16-year low, according to the commission itself. It speculates in its most recent annual report (PDF) that that the marked decrease may be related to law school and attorney education about legal ethics standards and publication of attorney discipline information.

Melvin Hirshman, longtime bar counsel for the commission, says most disciplinary cases involve a lack of diligence, ranging from a lawyer who doesn’t timely return phone calls to one who fails to file suit before the relevant statute of limitations expires. Generally speaking, “they need to make more than one mistake, or the commission needs to hear from more than one client before the lawyer is considered for disciplinary action,” he states, according to the news agency.

Although a computerized compilation of state Attorney Grievance Commission disciplinary records that serves as the basis for the article is only 70 percent complete, the 1,612 records it contains, dating from 1930 to 2006, is the most complete computerized file available, Capital News reports.

Meanwhile, the news service notes, in a separate article, that most Maryland lawyers never get into trouble. Among those who are the subject of complaints, commission data shows that “less than a quarter of all complaints are investigated, nearly half of those investigated complaints are ‘closed administratively’ and about a third of the remaining [cases] receive some kind of discipline.”

A lawyer with a national lawyer watchdog group describes the Maryland attorney discipline situation as a mixed bag. “The good news is that Maryland is one of the few states to inject sunshine into its discipline process,” says Suzanne Blonder, senior counsel of HALT, in a 2006 assessment. “The bad news is that there is very little discipline to see.”

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