Information About Disputes With Lawyers
The State Bar of Arizona works tirelessly to protect the public. While the vast majority of lawyers serve their clients professionally, sometimes clients feel there is a problem with the way they are being represented by their lawyer. When this happens, they can turn to the State Bar for assistance.
The State Bar investigates charges of unethical conduct against lawyers practicing in Arizona. If you believe that a lawyer has acted unethically, you can file a charge with the State Bar. Before doing so, please read this brochure, which provides general information about the process to discipline lawyers in Arizona and the Attorney/Consumer Assistance Program (A/CAP).
The responsibility of the State Bar of Arizona
The State Bar gets its authority to investigate charges against lawyers from the Arizona Supreme Court. Lawyer discipline is funded by annual dues paid by all members of the State Bar, not by tax dollars.
The State Bar's jurisdiction is limited to investigating matters that violate the Rules of the Supreme Court, particularly the Rules of Professional Conduct contained in Rule 42. These rules can be found in volume 17A of the Arizona Revised Statutes, which are available in most public and law libraries, or by clicking here.
A primary purpose of the disciplinary process is to protect the public. Lawyers engaged in serious misconduct, such as theft of client funds or certain crimes, may be suspended or disbarred. Other types of misconduct, such as not communicating with clients or failing to diligently pursue a case, may result in the lawyer receiving a reprimand or admonition, the lawyer being placed in a supervised diversion or probation program, or provided an educational comment. Diversion programs address less serious acts of ethical misconduct that typically can be linked to poor law office management, chemical dependency, or other behavioral problems. Through the diversion program the lawyer is provided education or assistance to address specific conduct in an effort to prevent similar ethical violations from reoccurring. Successful completion of diversion results in the underlying matter being dismissed. Diversion records are not public, nor are they considered a disciplinary sanction.
In addition, the State Bar may be able to resolve simple disputes between lawyers and clients. For example, concerns about rude behavior in some instances may result in a discipline investigation, but also may be referred to another State Bar program that addresses unprofessional conduct.
The State Bar does not generally investigate issues pending in court or matters arising out of a lawyer's personal life, such as disputes with neighbors, creditors, or spouses.
A client can fire a lawyer for any reason. That reason may not be grounds for disciplining the lawyer. Lawyers sometimes make mistakes that upset clients but are not ethical violations.
Many times charges are filed against lawyers who represent other people. This is especially common in the area of family law, such as when one spouse files a charge against the lawyer of the other spouse. Before filing a charge against your opponent's lawyer, remember that it is a lawyer's duty to represent his or her client. You may not like what the lawyer does, particularly if it has a negative impact on you, but that does not necessarily make the conduct unethical.
Lawyers and their clients generally enter into agreements on the cost of legal services. Information or agreements about fees, costs and scope of representation must be in writing. Disputes over legal fees are not usually investigated for unethical conduct.
The State Bar operates a fee arbitration program to provide a free method of resolving fee disputes. For the arbitration to be binding, both the client and the lawyer must agree to arbitrate. To receive forms for fee arbitration, call 602.340.7379.
What will the State Bar investigate?
Here are a few examples of the kinds of conduct the State Bar has authority to investigate:
• A lawyer does not do what he or she has promised or does not act in a timely manner.
• A lawyer continually fails to respond to inquiries about the case, to tell you about court dates or to appear in court.
• A lawyer lies or advises you or someone else to lie in the course of a case.
• A lawyer represents you as well as another person whose interests conflict with yours.
• A lawyer will not give you money he or she is holding on your behalf or will not give you a full written accounting.
• Complaints about non-lawyers engaged in the practice of law.
You should also be aware of what the State Bar cannot do.
• The State Bar cannot investigate charges of isolated malpractice, give legal advice, or become involved in a specific legal dispute.
• The State Bar does not investigate charges against judges. Complaints against Arizona judges should be referred to the Commission on Judicial Conduct at 602.452.3200.
• The State Bar does not investigate charges against lawyers who are not licensed in Arizona unless they are practicing law in Arizona. Usually charges must be filed in the state where the lawyer is licensed.
If you feel your lawyer or the opposing lawyer has violated an ethical rule, using the examples listed as a guide, please call the Attorney/Consumer Assistance Program (A/CAP) at 602.340.7280. An A/CAP staff member will talk with you about your case, the nature of your dispute and the actions of the lawyer. If your dispute appears to raise issues of ethical misconduct, your information will be provided to one of the A/CAP lawyers for review.
Review and investigation
If a Bar counsel contacts you to talk about your dispute, it is important that you provide reliable contact information. The Bar counsel will decide whether your charge concerns possible ethical misconduct. If it does, the Bar counsel may conduct a preliminary investigation. The preliminary investigation may include talking to the lawyer about your charge or requesting a written response from the lawyer, speaking with other witnesses, or reviewing documents you provide or that are available from the court. You may be asked to submit your charge in writing. Please note that written and telephone submissions are generally public records and are not confidential.
The State Bar receives approximately 5,000 charges a year. It may take several weeks before this initial review is concluded. The Bar counsel will then decide what, if any, action is appropriate. The Bar counsel may try to help you informally resolve your dispute with the lawyer.
If, after this initial review, the Bar counsel determines that there is probable cause to believe that the lawyer has violated the ethical rules, the Bar counsel will assess the seriousness of the violation. In cases in which the violation is minor, or the conduct may be remediated, the Bar counsel may address the conduct with the lawyer or place the lawyer in a diversion program. If the misconduct is more serious, and it appears that clear and convincing evidence exists to support the allegations, the case may be more formally investigated. You will be notified of the decision.
In cases that warrant a more formal investigation, you may be asked to provide additional information and/or speak with a State Bar investigator. If formal disciplinary proceedings are initiated, a hearing may be held and you may be required to appear as a witness and testify. It is very important that you give the State Bar your current contact information, and update that information should it change before the hearing is held or the matter is concluded.
Do not delay in exploring other possible remedies you may have against the lawyer simply because you have filed a charge with the State Bar. You may lose valuable legal rights if you wait for the the State Bar's investigation to conclude.
If you want to find out if you have other remedies against the lawyer, you should contact another private lawyer. If you believe a lawyer has acted illegally, you should report that conduct to appropriate prosecuting authorities. The State Bar's staff cannot give you legal advice, get involved in your case, or tell you what you should do.
For more information about State Bar procedures, click here.