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Guidelines for Reporting an Attorney for Ethical Violations

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Consumer Defense

Introduction. The financial cost, time commitment, academic demands, and perseverance required to become an attorney present a series of hurdles that function as a refining qualifier for those who ultimately serve society as lawyers.

As a result, only those who are intelligent, committed, and of strong character become lawyers and succeed. It’s likely that as many as 99.9% of all lawyers are generally good people who are passionate, compassionate, intelligent, hard working, and self sacrificing for the greater good. Many people choose the legal profession because they see it as a way to bring about positive social change.

Assuming the above 99.9% statistic is accurate, we’re still left with 1 in 1000 attorneys who may not be fully qualified to practice law competently because of ethical issues, lack of experience, over confidence, sloppy office management, greed, carelessness, taking cases they aren’t experienced to handle, or other issues. If earning money is a higher priority to an attorney than effectively serving clients, the quality of their service will likely be poor. Unfortunately, a few bad attorneys give the legal profession a bad name.

In being proactive, it’s important to have qualifications in mind before selecting an attorney. A good example of this can be found in the document Guidelines for Finding a Qualified Immigration Attorney.

Mechanisms are in place for clients to report unprofessional and unethical attorney behavior. The website Lawyers.com offers an article about reporting a lawyer for ethics violations. Among the points listed on the site are the following examples of ethical issues worth reporting to the state bar association:

  • Failing to communicate with the client
  • Not returning the client’s documents
  • Not safeguarding the client’s property
  • Misrepresentation by the attorney. For instance, when an attorney says he has a lot of experience in your type of case when in fact he has little or none
  • Misplacing client funds, refusing to pay over money owed to a client, or improper billing procedures

Considerations for Filing a Complaint. Below are guidelines for filing a complaint about an attorney.

  1. Application Form. Most states have an application form that’s required for filing a complaint against an attorney. The Attorney Complaint Form for Iowa is a simple one-page document. A complaint form requires you provide information about yourself, your attorney, and the grievance along with documentation.
  2. Case Documentation. You should be able to document any complaint(s) you have about an attorney in the way they have handled your case or interacted with you. This can be in the form of saved email correspondence that demonstrates wrongdoing, misrepresentations, incompetence, ethical violations, and/or neglect. If your attorney threatened you verbally and attempted to use their power as an attorney to intimidate you with unfounded legal action, this would be an egregious ethical violation. However, if there’s no evidence to clearly document what happened, it’s simply your word against the attorney.
  3. Circumstances. An attorney who simply made an honest mistake, and seems to be truly sorry about it and willing to do better in the future is probably not an ideal candidate for being reported. Regardless of a person’s profession, even people who are doing their best can make human errors that are understandable. However, people who repeatedly make the same mistake over and over despite being corrected may only respond to disciplinary action from an official agency.
  4. Communication. Have you already communicated the concerns to your attorney? What was their response? Most people are receptive to feedback, comments, and suggestions for improvement. Try to address issues directly with your attorney before filing a complaint. If your attorney is evasive, non-responsive, defensive, or responds by threatening you, then a complaint may be necessary.
  5. Confidentiality. In the process of filing a complaint against an attorney, you will most likely be required to relinquish your right to confidentiality and attorney-client privileges. See the Attorney Complaint Form for Iowa for an example. This would normally not be a problem, unless you believe the attorney may behave in unethically and maliciously in their defense. You cannot file a complaint anonymously, so they attorney will know who has filed the complaint against them.
  6. Impact on Your Case. In some situations, such as the processing of an immigration case, it may take days or weeks to process your request to terminate services with an attorney. This means the attorney could act maliciously and interfere with the processing of your case as long as they are still listed as the primary person responsible. In such situations, it’s best not to give the attorney anything to be upset about.
  7. Outcomes. Filing a complaint is a commitment of time. For an attorney who has already demonstrated evasive behavior and an unwillingness to improve, formal complaints will likely be responded to with skillfully crafted excuses and defenses. The outcome may be that the attorney will be more careful in the future at not getting caught. As mentioned in point #4 above, if your attorney does not acknowledge in writing that they’ve received a request or concern from a client, they can always later say they didn’t know about it.
  8. When Not to File a Complaint. If the attorney has already threatened you as described in point #2 above, it may be better for you personally if you don’t file a complaint. People who are willing to falsify information, are very dangerous because they will say and do anything without concern for how it harms others. This trait is usually combined with a vindictiveness. It’s best to simply avoid such people.


About This Document. The above document is written for the purpose of consumer advocacy. As with most of the documents on this site, this document will probably be revised and expanded to over time to ensure it is current and comprehensive. Revisions and additions are based on further research, reader feedback, and site visitor data. More articles about consumer advocacy can be found on this website, or by referring to the Consumer Defense Resource Group.

Contributors. We wish to thank the National Visa Center, the Iowa State Bar Association and the Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board as well as other attorneys who offered feedback helpful for developing the above article.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com