To hear the bars in Viriginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia tell it, they are getting tough with bad lawyers.
"We generate more paper than the Pentagon," says Hollingsworth Pittman, counsel to the Maryland Bar and a key figure in disciplinary proceedings there. Virginia bar officials point to an increase in their investigative staff and to penalties their bar has handed several prominent laywers, including a state legislator.
District bar officials say they, too, are more aggressive in policing lawyers. But despite the clamor, a number of critics are saying that the bar remains unresponsive, self-protective and hypocritical.
In Virginia, for instance, nearly 15 percent of the 400 lawyers who were the subject of complaints in the year ended in July received some form of disciplinary action, said Michael Rigsby, the state bar's counsel.
But three-fifths of those disciplined in Virginia received only a private reprimand following a closed-door investigation, and no attorney was disbarred during that period. "Seventy five percent of the bar doesn't even know the bar disciplines attorneys," said Rigsby. "They just go ahead and do what they do."
In Maryland only 2 percent of the 891 complaints received during that same period resulted in disciplinary action against an attorney, more than half of these being private reprimands, according to bar counsel Pittman. D.C. bar counsel Fred Grabowsky said 6 percent of those complained of are disciplined in Washington, again mostly by confidential admonitions from the bar.
Park of the problem, say critics like Mark Green, head of the Washington based, Congress Watch, a Ralph Nader group, and author of the book "Bringing The Bar To Justice," is that there are too fuew non-lawyers on the disciplinary staffs.
Neither Virginia's 12-member disciplinary board nor Maryland's eight member Attorney Grievance Commission have nonlawyer members despite what the American Bar Association's Center for Proffessional Discipline says a national trend in that direction.
"All you have is foxes guarding foxes," complains Green. "You need the ventilation of nonlawyers. They are less likely to go along with the sort of lawyer abuse that now goes unchallenged."
The District added two nonlawyers to its nine-member disciplinary board in January, thus joining the 22 states which have, nonlawyers on disciplinary boards.
"The bar would not like to be interrogated by nonlawyers. I don't know that a nonlawyer would be able to interpret the Code of Proffessional Rthics," said Pittman, referring to the code the regulates lawyers conduct.
Virginia's Rigsby said the absence of nonlawyers on the disciplinary board "certainly looks suspicious," but argue that while nonlawyers on the board might enhance the board's credibility, it is already functioning well.
Several recent Virginia cases indicate that the bar is in fact clamping down on attorneys who take advantage of their clients, are inexcusably slow in protecting their clients' interests or negligent in their handling of cases, Rigsby said. Among them:
State Sen. Douglas Wilder, a Richmond attorney, who was publicly reprimanded this year for failing to purseu properly a client's personal injurt claim.
Fairfax lawyer William Edgar Jones Jr., who allegedly stole $27,000 last year from a client who had been declared mentally incompent, was barred from practicing law in Virginia.
Arlington lawyer Robert G.Flick, whose license was suspended last summer after he failed to do the required work in a divorce case and, the state bar said, "threatened the client with physical harm."
In an effort to make lawyer discipline uniform Virginia created a 12 member board two years ago to review cases sent to it by state bar headquarters, as well as from the state's 10 district committees, which handle discipline cases.
But Phillip Hirschkop, chairman of Northern Virignia's 8th District Grievance Committee, said he believes the state is doing a "lousy job" of disciplining attorneys, that discipline is "totally arbitrary," and that there are "no standards" for it. Those disciplining the lawyers are "hypocritical as hell, " he said. "They discipline them for doint the same thing they do every day."
Hirschkop said there is a danger that a local disciplinary boards will shy away from disciplining prominent attorneys and will conceal the trangressions of friends.
"It's simple to bury complaints. There are several ways to do it in Viriginia. Once I have a complaint, I can assign it to myself-if its an old buddy of mine," said Hrischkop.
Hirschkop said lawyers disciplining their peers are placed in the "worst conflicts of interest in the wold," a point neglected by Virginia's bar rules, which contain no provision for conflicts of interest by lawyers.
Discplinary procedures in Virginia Maryland and the District are often of Labyrinthine complexity.
In the District "even a minor complaint" takes an average of five months from the time it is lodged to final disposition, bar officials say. A more serious complaint may take a year of more to resolve, according to bar counsel Grabowsky.
In Maryland, complaints pass from the Attorney Grievance Commission, to an inquiry panel, then to a review board, the Court of Appeals, a trial court, and back again to the Court of Appeals, said Pittman.
"It has to go through so many stages and so many bodies it takes a long time to get anything done," said Pittman.
All three bar counsels cite tight budgets, manpower shortages and the neefor accountants and other outside investigators to aid them in their detection of attorneh misconduct.
Virginia spent $119,000 on its disciplinary agency which watches over about 9,000 practicing attorneys and D.C. about $295,000 for 23,700 attorneys, according to the ABA's Center for Professional Discipline.
That breaks down to $12 per lawyer for D.C. and $13 per lawyer for Virginia, both well below the national average of $22 per lawyer for discipline, a center spokesman said.
Figures for Maryland were not reported to the centre, the spokesman said. The center has had difficulty obtaining from a number of jurisdictions that do not report the incidence of client's complaints or discipline-related matters, the spokesman said.
"The whole thing has beenhush-hush for so many years that they can't follow their own trail," the disciplinary center official said