A grievance, or complaint, may be brought against an attorney if he violates his Oath of Office, the Rules of Professional Conduct, or criminal laws. Generally, any of the following is reason for a person to file a grievance:
1. Mishandling and misappropriation of funds held by an attorney. This includes money and assets related to real estate, trust accounts, estates, mortgages and other accounts.
2. Accepting a fee to do legal work, and not doing the work within a reasonable length of time. Some legal matters require only a short time to complete, while others may require a year or even several years, so the definition of a "reasonable length of time" varies.
3. Accepting a case when the lawyer is not professionally competent to handle it. For example, a complicated tax matter might require an attorney experienced with tax law, not a criminal lawyer. Or, a complicated child custody case might better be handled by an attorney experienced in family law, not an attorney specializing in wills.
4. Breach of the lawyer-client confidential relationship. Information a client shares with his attorney during a client-attorney conference involves a trust relationship recognized by the courts, and the lawyer must not break it.
5. Improper conduct on the part of an attorney by violating the civil or criminal laws. This includes willful misrepresentation, fraud, deceit, bribery, extortion, misappropriation, theft, conspiracy or solicitation of another to commit a "serious crime", and crimes involving moral turpitude.
6. Lawyer's failure to respond to calls or letters is grounds for grievance.
In discussing what is a grievance, one should be aware of areas which are not covered by the grievance rules such as:
1) Routine disputes about fees. The South Carolina Bar has a Resolution of Fee Disputes Board to receive such complaints.
2) Personality conflicts between a client and his lawyer.
3) Convicted persons complaining about a poor defense. Our courts provide a post-conviction appeal process to cover this. In some cases, however, this could be a grievance matter.
4) Complaints growing out of a domestic relations case when the attorney did not get the result the client wanted.
5) Collecting a bill owed by a lawyer. The Courts handle cases like that.
If you believe you have a grievance against an attorney--which you believe can be proven and documented by obtainable evidence--then you should write or call:
Commission on Lawyer Conduct
1015 Sumter St., Ste. 305
Columbia, SC 29201
What happens after you file the grievance? The Office of Disciplinary Counsel conducts an investigation. The Commission will then conclude the matter with a dismissal or letter of caution, discipline by the consent of the lawyer, or a public hearing. If a public hearing is required, it will be held by members of the Commission who will file a report and recommendation with the South Carolina Supreme Court. The Supreme Court makes the final determination in contested matters. The Supreme Court can dismiss the grievance or impose sanction.
The "discipline" imposed can range from a confidential letter of caution to disbarment. In rare cases, a portion of fees paid may be ordered returned to the client, or other types of financial restitution ordered.
Key points to remember include:
1. You are not required to have a lawyer assist you in filing a grievance. You may do so by letter to the Commission, but you must have hard facts and evidence which investigators can get and use to support your claim.
2. All grievance investigations are confidential unless a public hearing or public sanction is required; however, the attorney will receive a copy of your complaint letter. Up to 60 days may be required for initial investigation.
If you believe you have a grievance, please contact the Commission on Lawyer Conduct, 1015 Sumter St., Ste. 305, Columbia, SC 29201. Phone number (803) 734-2037.
This information was prepared to give you some general information on the law. It is not intended as legal advice about any particular problem. If you have questions about the law you should consult a lawyer. If you do not know a lawyer, you can call the South Carolina Bar Lawyer Referral Service weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The number is 799-7100 in Richland or Lexington Counties, and 1-800-868-2284 from other parts of the state.