Filing a complaint with the Bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel

If your lawyer is engaging in unethical behavior you can file a complaint with the State Bar of California. Unethical behavior could include your lawyer not returning your calls, no longer working on your case or missing a deadline for filing your lawsuit.

What is the State Bar of California?

The State Bar functions as a public agency branch of government. The State Bar is governed by the California Supreme Court. One of the main goals of the Bar is promoting the ethical practice of law. The Bar regulates and disciplines attorneys when appropriate. The Bar also handles client complaints against their attorney.

Filing a complaint

Filing a complaint is free and you do not need to be a U.S. citizen in order to file. The first step in filing the complaint is going to the State Bar website and downloading a complaint form. The form needs to be completed and mailed back to the State Bar offices.

When you are sending your completed form back, it is helpful to include copies of any documentation you have regarding your case. Simply making a claim is not enough and you need supporting evidence. Helpful documents to include are copies of your retainer and fee agreement and any letters or email communications you have received from your attorney. Make sure to only send copies of your documents and store the originals in a safe place.

Next steps

A State Bar attorney will review your complaint and you will receive a letter in the mail notifying you that your complaint has been received. If the Bar attorney does not find any examples of unethical behavior or violations your complaint will be closed and you will be notified via mail. You can appeal the decision. If the Bar wants to further investigate your complaint they will contact your attorney and ask them for their version of the events. The State Bar may also request additional documents regarding your claim.

Attorney discipline

Depending on the findings of the Bar, your attorney may be issued a warning. The Bar could issue the attorney an Agreement in Lieu of Discipline wherein the lawyer agrees to take corrective action, but it is not considered disciplinary action.

For more serious violations, a full Bar investigation may be launched and testimony and documents will be present to a judge. The judge can dismiss the case or issue a private or public reprimand. In grievous situations, the judge can recommend the lawyer be suspended or disbarred.

The judge’s recommendation can be appealed by either your attorney or the State Bar and reviewed by the Court Review Department. During the review, a panel of three lawyers can accept or change the hearing judge’s recommendation. If either party wishes, a final appeal can be made to the California Supreme Court, but they do not have to review the case.

If your attorney violated your fee agreement or handled your case in an unethical or unprofessional manner, it’s probable they committed legal malpractice. In addition to filing a complaint against the attorney you may have a viable legal malpractice case.