Robert Lorbeer had lost a bruising court fight for custody of his 7-year-old daughter. Now he was sitting in an office in Arlington, explaining to a lawyer representing the Virginia State Bar that he believed his ex-wife's attorney had lied during the judicial proceedings.
In the interview, which lasted more than an hour and was secretly tape recorded by Lorbeer, J. Strouse Campbell, a lawyer-member of the bar's 10th District grievance committee, told Lorbeer:
* That "courts never give complete justice" and that "everything said in court by a lawyer, defendant or complainant is not absolutely true. And everybody knows it."
* That conducting bar investigations of lawyers' alleged misconduct is "terrible, awful. You don't get any remuneration, you make your fellow peers mad."
* That Lorbeer's inquiry whether Campbell had ever faced the ex-wife's lawyer, Betty A. Thompson of Arlington, in court was "not a proper question."
* That if Lorbeer was serious about winning custody of his daughter, "What you need to do is prepare your own case and forget about what Betty Thompson did a year ago" in court. "It's ridiculous . . . this is going to hurt you if you pursue this."
Lorbeer says it did not surprise him five weeks later when he received a letter from Campbell informing him his complaint had been considered by the committee and dismissed.
"The bar shouldn't be doing that investigating itself ," says the 39-year-old employe of a Falls Church health care company. "I want the system to work right."
Some lawyers interviewed have defended Campbell's remarks at the Aug. 14 meeting and others have suggested his words were ill-chosen. Most acknowledge that Lorbeer's charges touch on a controversial and sensitive issue among attorneys in Virginia and elsewhere: a public perception that those in the legal profession tend to look out for each other.
"I think the bar to a large extent protects its own," says Alexandria attorney John Grad. "The bar is very responsive to obvious cheating, like hanky-panky with escrow funds. But there are cases of gross misrepresentation where the bar says, 'Eh?' "
Campbell, who had told Lorbeer he did not want their meeting to be recorded, declines to discuss the matter on grounds that grievance proceedings in Virginia are confidential by rules of the State Supreme Court.
Virginia State Bar counsel Michael Rigsby similarly refuses. "I'd rather have the public mad at me than the state Supreme Court," he says, referring to his employer.
The rules laid by the Virginia court require that proceedings against a lawyer remain confidential until a public disciplinary action is taken.
"He's a sore loser," says Thompson of Lorbeer, who lost permanent custody of his daughter by court order in October 1980. Thompson denies she intentionally misstated facts in the case and points to the grievance committee's decision as her vindication.
"I saw red, white and blue when he filed that complaint," she adds.
Although the bar dismissed the matter against Thompson, Alexandria prosecutors, at Lorbeer's urging, pursued aspects of sworn testimony given by his ex-wife during the Oct. 9, 1980 custody hearing before Circuit Court Judge Donald Kent.
On Dec. 7, 1981, an Alexandria grand jury indicted Lorbeer's ex-wife, Carmen Smith Lorbeer, on two counts of perjury, accusing her of lying while under oath. Carmen Lorbeer is free on $1,000 personal bond.
"It's nothing I knew anything about," said Thompson, who said she was unaware of the indictment. "I don't remember what she said in court . If they start issuing warrants for perjury in divorce cases . . . " She did not finish the sentence.
Like many other states, Virginia's Bar (as opposed to the state bar association) is an administrative arm of the state Supreme Court. Membership is mandatory. "It's both a club and a license to practice ," says attorney Grad.
Complaints, which bar officials say have increased steadily in recent years, totaled about 600 in the fiscal year ending in June, the latest period for which figures are available. These were assigned from Richmond to 10 district disciplinary committees around the state for investigation by lawyer-members.
Last fiscal year, according to bar statistics, bar investigations have led to 16 private reprimands, two public reprimands, six suspensions and six disbarments. Six other lawyers resigned while charges were pending.
"The bar does a good job of policing itself," says Richmond attorney Murray Janus, recent past president of the bar's statewide disciplinary committee. "I believe strongly that the system works."
Janus says complaints against lawyers range from negligence to incompetence to lack of communication with a client, with the bulk of the allegations involving incompetence. "There are very few crooked lawyers," he says.
Janus says he finds lawyers "harder on a crooked lawyer than the public would be -- absolutely," and denies that cronyism exists. "It's a myth," he says emphatically.
Grad agrees. "Generally, people on grievance committees are trying to do a good job. But they work under procedures that need revamping. The bar is a creation of the Supreme Court, which is lawyers, and to some extent the legislature, which is lawyers."
To help offset the perception that angry clients have little recourse, the American Bar Association recommended two years ago that state bars begin including lay people on grievance committees. Virginia took that step in July.
"The reason is to involve the public more in the process so the client feels he's getting very serious consideration," says Jeanne Gray of the ABA's National Center for Professional Responsibility in Chicago. "It's significantly good public relations."
Both Janus and the Virginia Bar's Rigsby generally agree. "The lay people ask very good questions in the hearings we've had and they expect the attorneys on the panel to follow the rules," says Rigsby. "They're much more than window-dressing."
Lorbeer, whose appeal of the bar's dismissal of his complaint was denied, remains unconvinced. "Essentially, the bar is dumping on those people" who question the conduct of lawyers, he says.
Meanwhile, even a strong defender of the bar like Janus acknowledges that Campbell's statement as taped by Lorbeer, that no lawyer is entirely truthful in court, is troublesome.
"Number one, it isn't true," says Janus. "Number two, it was ill-advised."