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Can your attorney settle a case without your approval?

No, attorneys are supposed to consult with clients before making a decision about whether to settle a case. Attorneys have a duty to communicate settlement offers to clients so that clients can give informed consent and make a reasoned decision.

The Comment to Rule 1.4 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct provides:

For example, a lawyer who receives from opposing counsel an offer of settlement in a civil controversy or a proffered plea bargain in a criminal case must promptly inform the client of its substance unless the client has previously indicated that the proposal will be acceptable or unacceptable or has authorized the lawyer to accept or to reject the offer.

What can people do when they feel their lawyers have been unethical or unprofessional?

The person can file a complaint with the department or agency established by a state high court to monitor and regulate the legal professional. In Tennessee, complaints can be filed with the so-called Board of Professional Responsibility. In Illinois, complaints can be filed with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. New Mexico has a body called the Commission on Client Protection. These groups or commissions have websites and usually have online forms in which to file a complaint or at least explain how a complaint can be filed. Some states require complaints to be mailed. An example is the form to file a claim against a New Mexico-based attorney can be accessed at nmbar.org/Attorneys/CPF/CPFClaimForm.pdf.

Can you find out if a lawyer has faced discipline?

Yes, some states allow you to do a search online to determine if an attorney has faced discipline. For example, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility has a section entitled "Online Attorney Directory" at tbpr.org/Consumers/AttorneySearch/ at which you can search attorneys by their names and bar license numbers. If the lawyer has had discipline it will reveal whether a petition for discipline has been filed and whether there was any punishment (such as a public censure) against an attorney.

How are lawyers punished for misconduct?

State supreme courts can punish lawyers in a number of ways. The worst form of lawyer sanction in the legal profession is disbarment, which means that the lawyer is no longer capable of practicing law, as he or she has lost his or her law license. Stealing money from a client, committing a serious crime, or lying to the court on important matters could result in disbarment proceedings.

In many states, lawyers could face a suspension for a period of several years if they commit serious breaches of the lawyer ethical rules. They also could

Punishments for attorney misconduct can range from a mere reprimand all the way up to disbarment from practice (iStock).

Punishments for attorney misconduct can range from a mere reprimand all the way up to disbarment from practice (iStock).

LegalSpeak: Forms of Discipline under the ABA Standards for Imposing Lawyer Discipline 2.2 Disbarment

Disbarment terminates the individual's status as a lawyer. Where disbarment is not permanent, procedures should be established for a lawyer who has been disbarred to apply for readmission, provided that:

(1) no application should be considered for five years from the effective date of disbarment; and

(2) the petitioner must show by clear and convincing evidence:

(a) successful completion of the bar examination, and

(b) rehabilitation and fitness to practice law.

2.3 Suspension

Suspension is the removal of a lawyer from the practice of law for a specified minimum period of time. Generally, suspension should be for a period of time equal to or greater than six months, but in no event should the time period prior to application for reinstatement be more than three years. Procedures should be established to allow a suspended lawyer to apply for reinstatement, but a lawyer who has been suspended should not be permitted to return to practice until he has completed a reinstatement process demonstrating rehabilitation and fitness to practice law.

2.4 Interim Suspension

Interim suspension is the temporary suspension of a lawyer from the practice of law pending imposition of final discipline. Interim suspension includes:

(a) suspension upon conviction of a serious crime or,

(b) suspension when the lawyer's continuing conduct is or is likely to cause immediate and serious injury to a client or the public.

2.5 Reprimand

Reprimand, also known as censure or public censure, is a form of public discipline which declares the conduct of the lawyer improper, but does not limit the lawyer's right to practice.

2.6 Admonition

Admonition, also known as private reprimand, is a form of non-public discipline which declares the conduct of the lawyer improper, but does not limit the lawyer's right to practice.

2.7 Probation

Probation is a sanction that allows a lawyer to practice law under specified conditions.

Probation can be imposed alone or in conjunction with a reprimand, an admonition or immediately following a suspension. Probation can also be imposed as a condition of readmission or reinstatement.

receive a public censure or a private reprimand. All states do not have the same level of punishment for attorneys.

The ABA's Standards for Imposing Legal Discipline—adopted in 1986 to serve as a guide and provide some much-needed uniformity in the area of lawyer discipline— provide for several types of lawyer discipline. These include disbarment, suspension, interim suspension, reprimand, admonition, and probation.

What are some common grounds for attorney discipline?

A major ethical breach occurs when attorneys fail to deliver money to clients or commit some type of fraud upon their own clients. Attorneys even are prohibited from commingling (mixing) their funds with that of their clients. The fear is that the attorneys will not return the necessary monies to the clients.

Another common problem is that attorneys fail to manage a case properly by not responding to court demands in a case or not filing the proper pleadings in a case. Another problem occurs when attorneys fail to file a lawsuit within the necessary time period— called a statute of limitations. If a lawyer fails to file a lawsuit within the necessary time period, then the client loses his or her right to recover even if the suit is meritorious.

 
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