Legal Ethics

Study finds Wisconsin has an unsustainable backlog of attorney ethics complaints

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According to a new study, Wisconsin has an unsustainable backlog of ethics complaints against attorneys.

On Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a study had found that ethics complaints filed with Wisconsin’s Office of Lawyer Regulation skyrocketed from fiscal years 2007 to 2012. Complaints increased by nearly 40 percent, from 1,896 new complaints to 2,677 in that timespan.

Despite that, the report found that investigations have decreased in each of the last two years, going from 445 to 365. The report was conducted by two out-of-state attorney-discipline overseers: Jerome Larkin of Illinois and John Gleason of Colorado. It was requested by the OLR after Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson of the Wisconsin Supreme Court expressed concern about how the office was handling complaints, the Journal-Sentinel reported in an earlier article.

“We sense a high-degree of caution and timidity in investigations, which we attribute to concerns that decisions may be second-guessed,” Gleason and Larkin wrote in their report (PDF).

According to the Journal-Sentinel, an average investigation into a Wisconsin lawyer takes about 400 days, and some cases can even last several years. Larkin and Gleason noted that of the 478 cases which were pending as of the end of March 2014, 27.2 percent were more than two years old.

In order to cut through the backlog, the report made several recommendations. Larkin and Gleason suggested that Keith Sellen, director of the Office of Lawyer Regulation, be given the authority to dismiss minor mistakes like trust-account paperwork errors, while sending lawyers a “better practices letter.”

Larkin and Gleason also recommended that the office negotiate more consent agreements and stipulations with offending lawyers, although Sellen told the Journal Sentinel that such a move could be seen as taking a step towards plea bargaining—which is strictly prohibited by the state in attorney-discipline cases.

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