WASHINGTON – The vast majority of Maryland lawyers never get into trouble.
In fact, the number of lawyers sanctioned by the state has fallen in the last 10 years, with the biggest drop happening in the last fiscal year, when only 57 of the state’s 33,018 lawyers were disciplined by being disbarred, suspended or reprimanded.
Data and reports from Maryland’s disciplinary agency, the Attorney Grievance Commission, show 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 receive some kind of discipline.
What the data do not show is any information on cases dismissed by the commission, with or without an investigation. All complaints are considered private and confidential unless the commission brings charges against an attorney. All charges are public.
About five years ago, the commission also made all sanctions public when it stopped disciplining lawyers by private reprimand. But public reprimands have not kept pace with the number of private reprimands the commission used to give.
“The good news is that Maryland is one of the few states to inject sunshine into its discipline process,” said Suzanne Blonder, senior counsel of HALT, a non-profit watchdog group that evaluates lawyer disciplinary agencies in every state.
“The bad news is that there is very little discipline to see,” Blonder said in HALT’s 2006 assessment.
In the end, less than .27 percent of Maryland lawyers were sanctioned in the last 10 years.
Neither the Court of Appeals nor Chief Judge Robert Bell returned calls seeking comment.
While lawyer punishments are declining, the number of attorney malpractice lawsuits, in which lawyers are sued for damages, is increasing at the same rate as the expansion of the bar, said Dave Whitworth, a Crofton attorney who has practiced law for 30 years and serves an expert witness on standard of care in various areas of law.
The number of people who want to sue their lawyers has increased, said Stacie Dubnow, a legal malpractice attorney from Hunt Valley. But she has not seen an increase in the number of cases that merit a lawsuit.
Occasionally an attorney will sue or file a complaint against another attorney on their own behalf. But like doctors, lawyers rarely report other lawyers, Dubnow said. It’s not “honorable” to sue a lawyer.
When lawyers do get into trouble, it usually originates as an honest mistake that snowballs into serious professional misconduct, she added.
“I don’t really see a change in the quality of legal representation.”
In its annual report, the commission attributed the downward trend in sanctions to professionalism and continuing education courses.
“We’re guessing without knowing,” said Melvin Hirshman, who has been the commission’s bar counsel for 27 years. But, he generally agreed with the education theory.
On the other hand, Robert Condlin, law professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, is skeptical about the downward trend.
“It’s weird,” Condlin said. “Maryland law schools have had a long-standing ethics requirement since the 1960s. The standards have not changed, the commission personnel have not changed, (ethics) rules have not changed. There is no way to explain what is happening.”
According to the commission’s reports, most of the complaints are dismissed in the initial stage, without investigation.
“About 67 percent of complaints are screened out because they do not violate the state’s rules of professional conduct,” said Hirshman, who is responsible for weeding out frivolous complaints. “Many clients are just not happy with the outcome of their cases and take it out on their attorney.”
People think of the commission as the “fox watching the chicken coup.” Hirshman said. “Some people think I make decisions because I know so-and-so,” he said. “But I don’t know them, never met them. I get to make the decisions, but I can never bat a thousand.
“This office has handled disciplines against governors, a vice president and prominent attorneys and law firms,” he added, referring to cases against former Vice President Spiro Agnew and former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, among others.
“But most of the actions (the commission takes) are against solo practitioners because they do not have the support system at their disposal as compared to a larger firm.”
The American Bar Association evaluated the performance of Maryland’s lawyer disciplinary system more than five years ago. It looked at the funding, the personnel, the volunteers, the complaints and the sanctions, Hirshman said. However, the findings of that “internal investigation” are not available to the public.