You’ve called and called and called, but your lawyer isn’t getting back to you.
“That upsets clients to no end,” says attorney Charles Slanina, and it makes up most of the complaints to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Local attorneys are obligated to conform to the Delaware Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel is a branch of the Delaware Supreme Court that investigates and prosecutes lawyer misconduct. ODC handles about 300 complaints each year, 10 percent of which result in disciplinary action.
Slanina should know. After nine years as a state prosecutor, he was the sole member of the ODC from 1989 till 1993. He then went into private practice. A large portion of his practice is defending lawyers who face charges of client neglect and other ethics breaches. “In Delaware, attorney discipline is taken very, very seriously. It is aggressively prosecuted,” he says. “There is no complaint too small.”
Slanina is a member of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, a group of attorneys who represent and advise lawyers and firms on ethics and professional responsibility and legal malpractice. He is also an adjunct professor at the Widener University School of Law. He lectures frequently about legal ethics.
“What tends to get firms in trouble is the business of the practice of law, not the practice of law itself,” Slanina says. Part of his practice is advising law firms on compliance with the state’s strict requirements for record keeping. The ODC performs random audits of firms to make sure all funds are accounted for and that no client is being cheated out of money. “Over the years, theft of client funds has been accepted as an unfortunate norm in other jurisdictions,” he says. “In Delaware, it is viewed as unacceptable. Most non-compliance is unintentional, but the court views the principals in firms as either responsible or not.”
What gets attorneys in trouble most often is neglect of clients. The reasons for neglect are consistent: the lawyer is over-extended, the office is poorly managed, or the lawyer is dealing with difficult personal issues.
That reason is often alcoholism or substance abuse, a form of self-medication for an undiagnosed emotional issue such as depression—a condition lawyers suffer in greater numbers than most professionals and the public. “Impaired attorneys are an issue,” he says, “and they’re a problem for the bar.”
Sanctions for ethics violations range from dismissal of the case with a warning (a resolution, not a disciplinary action) to a private admonition that is expunged after 10 years to public reprimand to probation to suspension to disbarment.
“Most attorneys want to do it right,” Slanina says. But if you have trouble, log the times and dates of your calls to the lawyer’s office and note whom you spoke to, then send the record to the lawyer with a note of explanation and a gentle reminder of his professional obligations. The lawyer may not see it the way you do. If his response is unsatisfactory, advise the lawyer that you will contact the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Be prepared.
“No two ways about it, that’s a threat,” Slanina says. “It could damage your relationship moving forward. But the disciplinary system of the Supreme Court is first and foremost there to protect the public. There would be no need for attorneys like me if discipline weren’t taken seriously.”