Responding to Ethics Complaints: Know the Rules!

When it comes to your law practice, avoiding ethics complaints is more effective and efficient than responding to them. But there is no foolproof way to prevent disgruntled clients and third parties from complaining to the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility (OLPR) about you.

If the OLPR serves you with a Notice of Investigation (NOI), a timely response is required. Otherwise, you will run afoul of Rule 8.1(b),Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) , which states a lawyer shall not “knowingly fail to respond to a lawful demand for information from an admissions or disciplinary authority…”

Rule 25, Minnesota Rules on Lawyers Professional Responsibility (RLPR), further imposes a duty to cooperate with the investigation or proceedings. In particular, the lawyer must comply with reasonable requests, including requests for documents and information related to the client matter(s) in question.

An attorney at the OLPR will screen complaints before deciding whether to investigate or before sending a complaint to the local District Ethics Committee (DEC) for preliminary investigation. The OLPR summarily dismisses many complaints, without investigation. But when there is “reasonable belief that professional misconduct may have occurred,” based on Rule 8(a), RLPR, the OLPR may initiate an investigation into the lawyer’s conduct.

The MRPC set the professional standards under which lawyers may be disciplined. The rules cover competence, diligence, fees, communication, confidentiality and other issues that naturally arise in law practice. Knowledge of the rules related to professional conduct is tested in the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MRPE), which was first administered in 1980 and is required for admission to the bars of almost all U.S. jurisdictions.

In responding to ethics complaints, lawyers also ought to read and review the RLPR. Until they become subject to disciplinary proceedings, most lawyers do not even know these formal rules exist. These are the procedural rules that govern the investigation and disposition of complaints, including how the disciplinary proceedings are conducted.

A timely, clear, organized, and well-documented response to the complaint sets a positive tone for the investigation or proceedings. An untimely, angry, incoherent and off-topic response hurts your credibility and could prompt the investigator to find merit in the complaint.

Interested in learning more about this topic?

On Wednesday, November 18, 4 to 5 pm, I will be participating as a panelist in a legal ethics discussion/CLE titled, Ethics in Practice: Exploring Ethics from Different Practice Perspectives. Other panelists include The Honorable Diane Alshouse, Ramsey County District Court Judge; Candace Groth, Associate Attorney at Virtus Law, and Kevin Slator, Senior Assistant Director at the OLPR. The discussion will be moderated by Blake Nelson, partner at Hellmut & Johnson who previously served on the 4th District Ethics Committee.

Registration deadline is Monday, November 16, 11:59 pm. For more information, go to William Mitchell’s CLE, Lectures and Events page.

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 


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Photo by: Blake Burkhart

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