The Purposes of Lawyer Discipline (to Top ↑)
The purpose of lawyer discipline is to:
- protect the public.
- protect the integrity of the legal system.
- ensure the administration of justice.
- deter further unethical conduct.
- rehabilitate the offending lawyer.
- deter unethical conduct by educating other lawyers and the public.
Neither the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) nor the Disciplinary Board provides legal services or gives advice to anyone filing a complaint. The complaint process should not be viewed as a substitute for a civil action for damages against the lawyer. The disciplinary system is not designed to compensate a complaining party for monetary loss or emotional distress incurred as a result of unethical conduct. Anyone seeking to recover money damages should consult another lawyer to discuss bringing a civil suit against the original lawyer for money damages.
Standards of Professional Conduct (to Top ↑)
The Louisiana Supreme Court has adopted high standards of ethics and professional competence for lawyers who practice in Louisiana. These standards are reflected in the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct. When lawyers enter practice in Louisiana, they obligate themselves to uphold the law and to abide by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Lawyers who violate these professional and ethical obligations are subject to discipline. Lawyers in Louisiana (not taxpayers) pay for the disciplinary system by paying an annual assessment to the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board. This statewide agency was established by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1990 to handle attorney disciplinary and other regulatory matters.
What Constitutes Unethical Conduct? (to Top ↑)
Because disciplining a lawyer is a serious matter, it takes evidence—proof of unethical conduct—to justify disciplinary action. An honest disagreement about how a case should be handled does not constitute unethical conduct, even if the outcome of the case is disappointing.
While it is impossible to list all of the acts or omissions which may constitute unethical conduct, here are a few examples of prohibited conduct which, if proven, may be cause for discipline:
- A lawyer cannot or will not give a client money that he or she is holding on the client’s behalf and to which the client is entitled, or will not provide the client a complete written accounting for that money.
- A lawyer continually fails to respond at all to inquiries by the client about the client’s case, to tell the client about court dates, or to appear in court. Where the problem is simply a lack of communication, a client should first try to resolve the problem with the lawyer.
- A lawyer advises a client or anyone else to lie, or lies himself or herself in the course of a case.
- A lawyer represents one party to a transaction while also the attorney for the other side. This is a conflict of interest and is generally prohibited unless both parties are fully aware of the situation and consent to it.
- A lawyer misrepresents to a client that certain actions have been taken by the lawyer on behalf of the client.
A simple mistake or error in judgment alone is not unethical misconduct. An example of this would be the lawyer’s failure to consult with the client prior to writing every letter or prior to filing every document in the client's case; or perhaps the lawyer’s failure to respond to each of the client’s telephone calls inquiring about the progress of the case. If a client has a problem that may be the result of inadequate communication or some misunderstanding, it may be that the problem can be resolved by a frank talk with the lawyer. The client should tell the lawyers that he or she is dissatisfied and should ask for a full explanation. Such a discussion will often eliminate the problem or lead to its solution.
Most complaints of attorney misconduct relate to the practice of law. However, conduct outside of the practice of law may result in a disciplinary proceeding if the misconduct reflects adversely on the attorney’s character and fitness to practice law, such as dishonest or criminal conduct.
Forms of Discipline (to Top ↑)
The forms of discipline which may be imposed upon a lawyer for engaging in unethical conduct are: private admonition, public reprimand, suspension for a specified period of time, disbarment, and permanent disbarment.
Private admonition is a form of discipline that is available only before formal charges have been filed and at the discretion of ODC. Once a lawyer has been formally charged with engaging in unethical conduct, the minimum sanction he/she can receive is public reprimand. The public reprimand is published in the Louisiana bar journal and the local newspaper and is typically imposed for minor misconduct.
Suspension is another form of sanction in which the lawyer is prohibited from practising law for a specified period of time. Suspension can range anywhere from one day to three years in length and may require the lawyer to seek reinstatement to the practice of law, depending upon the length of the suspension. Suspension for a period greater than three years is considered disbarment. Although disbarment is a form of sanction in which the lawyer loses his/her license to practice law, a disbarred lawyer may apply for readmission to the practice of law after five years have elapsed from the effective date of the disbarment.
The harshest sanction available in Louisiana’s attorney disciplinary system is permanent disbarment. If the Louisiana Supreme Court imposes permanent disbarment, the lawyer is prohibited from ever returning to the practice of law.
Where a disciplinary sanction is deserved, the actual result will depend upon the nature of the offense and the severity of the lawyer’s actions.