New York Attorneys: Who Oversees Lawyers?

In New York, oversight of lawyer conduct lies with the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court and its attorney grievance committees, comprised of both attorneys and non-attorneys working full time to receive, investigate and prosecute attorney misconduct complaints.

The American Bar Association has taken strong positions against federal agency policies and proposed rules which seek to force companies into forgoing attorneys’ privilege and work product protections in regulatory proceedings.

Grievance Committees

Grievance Committees are local bodies empowered to investigate and discipline lawyers. Appointed by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, these committees consist of both attorneys and non-attorneys; regionally organized (a list can be found on this brochure’s reverse side), they operate on a regional basis and must file complaints with each respective committee that covers an attorney’s county of practice. If a complainant wishes to lodge one against an attorney they must contact that particular committee directly in order for their complaint to be processed quickly.

The committee chair, usually an attorney, will meet with both you and the accused attorney to discuss your complaint and decide if further investigation needs to be undertaken by assigning it to subcommittee. Through these discussions, it is essential that both sides involved fully comprehend all facts involved with your case as well as relevant legal rules involved.

After an investigation is concluded, the subcommittee produces a report with recommendations for resolution of your grievance and sends this to both committee and you as well. Once read by chair of committee and committee chair respectively, these reports are sent onward for consideration of holding hearing(s), as well as whether any attorney involved should attend such hearing(s). You may bring any advisor or friend of choice with reasonable advance notice to accompany you at these hearing(s).

At a hearing, both sides are given the opportunity to present their arguments in support of their positions before being heard by a committee that questions witnesses and reviews the evidence presented from both sides. If it finds that an attorney violated ethical rules, the committee will issue a formal reprimand to him or her; if no agreement can be reached by committee members then formal disciplinary proceedings against that attorney are recommended by committee.

A strong Grievance Committee should feature members who are skilled interviewers, able to ask probing questions that will coax witnesses into telling the truth and helping them explain their version of events. In addition, these members should possess in-depth knowledge of professional responsibility laws.

Disciplinary Committees

In New York, legal discipline falls to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court and its discipline and grievance committees. Comprised of attorneys and non-attorneys working together with full-time professional staff, these committees investigate complaints made against attorneys; when necessary referring it for further investigation at county bar associations. If the committee determines an attorney engaged in misconduct it can impose sanctions ranging from written cautions/admonitions/suspension/disbarment; usually publishing its decision in the Law Reporter.

Disciplinary district committees consist of active attorneys in good standing as well as non-attorneys to review disciplinary issues in their geographical area and determine whether there is sufficient evidence against attorneys who could face formal charges or any agreed dispositions. Formerly, each of New York’s nine disciplinary departments had committees comprised of seven attorneys and two laypeople – now three have switched to nine member committees.

At the outset of an investigation, an individual serving on a disciplinary committee may be appointed as its “contact member.” This individual oversees Disciplinary Counsel’s initial investigation of complaints and can approve recommendations made by committees such as dismissals, informal admonitions or formal charges as well as deferral or abatement due to related criminal or civil litigation proceedings.

At the conclusion of each disciplinary hearing, the chairperson will submit a report to the Director of Student Services who will keep an adequate record. These records should include details on all committee members as well as an analysis of evidence used to make their decision and a copy of any written decision rendered by them.

The Board of Disciplinary Review serves as the ultimate administrative authority over attorney discipline in New York. Consisting of nine members, this body meets twice every month during 11 months each year to consider hearing committee recommendations and cases referred by the Court of Appeals, including criminal conviction referrals, reciprocal discipline matters, petitions for negotiated discipline agreements or reinstatements petitions as well as motions transferring cases between departments.

Court of Appeals

Appellate courts represent the highest tier of state courts. These specialized tribunals review decisions from lower-level trial courts to determine their correctness; unlike trial courts themselves, however, appellate courts simply review cases that have already been decided upon in a lower-tier trial court by reading transcripts, exhibits, and the written legal arguments presented to both parties through briefs submitted during their case hearing.

Attorneys appearing before the Court of Appeals for oral arguments must come prepared to discuss all legal issues affecting their cases and convince judges of their positions on them. As judges often ask difficult and complicated questions, this Court requires intense preparation weeks or months ahead. Furthermore, due to being known as a “hot bench,” these judges will often demand hearing compelling arguments that support their positions taken.

Court of Appeals appeals from district and circuit courts aren’t the only appeals it hears; some criminal convictions sent from the Supreme Court also need to be appealed here. Furthermore, it often acts as the final arbiter in most attorney disciplinary cases (with considerable weight given to recommendations made by Board of Professional Responsibility).

Due to its busy workload, the Court of Appeals only hears a small fraction of all of the thousands of cases it receives each year. Organized into panels of three judges that travel around to various locations across the state for oral arguments on cases, a majority vote must occur among judges to uphold or overturn lower court rulings.

The American Bar Association has long championed the principle that legal oversight should be administered by state high courts rather than federal agencies or Congress, and any new laws or regulations that impose excessive gatekeeper requirements upon legal practitioners should be reviewed by these high courts before being implemented into law or regulations. Furthermore, it strongly opposes any legislation or proposed agency rules that could undermine attorney-client privilege and confidential lawyer-client communications.

Board of Professional Responsibility

The Board of Professional Responsibility serves as the governing body of attorney discipline system. Consisting of nine-members, this nine-month long board meets twice each month during 11 months to review Hearing Committee recommendations and Court of Appeals referrals, such as criminal conviction referrals, reciprocal discipline matters petitions for negotiated discipline or reinstatement petitions and to oversee attorney grievance processes.

The American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility promotes public interest by upholding high standards of ethics and professionalism among lawyers, judges and law enforcement personnel. The Center works to support rule of law through developing policies, encouraging their implementation and providing educational resources such as its National Lawyer Regulatory Data Bank which offers access to public sanctions imposed against lawyers in various disciplinary cases across the US.

Lawyers are expected to meet the ethical standards outlined by the Supreme Court in its Rules of Professional Conduct. The Disciplinary Counsel’s Office evaluates complaints alleging violations and may initiate formal disciplinary proceedings or investigate allegations regarding unlicensed practice of law; all proceedings and investigations remain strictly confidential.

Disciplinary committees may issue letters of caution, admonition or reprimand when an attorney engages in improper conduct, but these letters remain private and in their records. If serious misconduct has been committed by an attorney, however, disciplinary committees can refer the case directly to courts for action.

In the 1980s, public trust in the discipline system plummeted dramatically. To address the situation and report its findings, the Supreme Court appointed a committee with public members that studied these issues and submitted its report. Through their recommendations and harmonious working relationships between them and court members such as OLPR director and MSBA representatives, this committee laid a solid foundation for system operation over many years after.

The Supreme Court of Illinois holds the sole authority for regulating admission and discipline of attorneys within Illinois, with ARDC serving as its agency of responsibility. Staff from ARDC assist courts by conducting attorney discipline proceedings and investigating criminal complaints; additionally they educate bar association meetings, continuing legal education classes and law school classes about this process and ethical responsibilities of lawyers.