A growing number of Minnesota attorneys are facing discipline, with the most frequent violations ranging from lack of diligence on cases to poor communication with clients.
The Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility publicly sanctioned 44 attorneys in 2016. The punishments include disbarment, suspension, probation or a reprimand. While the number was higher than previous yearly averages, it didn’t reach the record 65 attorneys disciplined in 2015, according to the office’s annual report released Wednesday.
Another 132 attorneys received private disciplinary actions. For the first time, the board broke down demographic data and found that attorneys with 11 to 20 years of experience were the group most likely to be disciplined. More than 1,200 complaints were filed with the office last year.
“Every year can bring different factors that raise the level of discipline up or down,” said attorney Ed Kautzer, who frequently works on ethics and malpractice cases. “I don’t think lawyers are now more corrupt or dishonest.”
A near-record 28 suspensions were handed down last year, plus 115 private admonitions. These admonitions are issued when the office concludes a lawyer’s conduct was unprofessional but was of an isolated or nonserious nature. Seventeen attorneys were also placed on private probation.
According to the report, 82 percent of the disciplinary actions were taken against men.
In 2016, six attorneys were disbarred because of misappropriation of client funds, a serious assault conviction, unauthorized practice of law after license suspension and frivolous litigation. In the first half of 2017, 17 lawyers had been disciplined, including 4 disbarments.
“I always hate to see it and continue to be surprised by actions that lead to disbarment,” said OLPR director Susan Humiston. “But there are 29,000 licensed attorneys in Minnesota, so on the whole we are doing extremely well.”
A key focus of the office was to expedite the investigative process and catch up on older case filings. Stacy Vinberg, chairwoman of the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board, said in the annual report that the office has worked tirelessly to improve in both areas.
“She has implemented changes that resulted in collaborative efforts among staff to achieve success in case management ... and taken the yearly reviews in a direction that has encouraged the staff to strive for higher personal and professional growth,” Vinberg said.
A year ago, the office had 151 case files over a year old out of 516 total cases. Now, there are 115 cases older than a year, 75 under investigation and the rest under various stages of litigation.
“We just triaged the system a little better,” Humiston said. “It’s a skill to manage large caseloads.”
Every state has lawyers professional responsibility boards to enforce ethics rules and educate the public and attorneys. In Minnesota, the voluntary board consists of a chair, 13 lawyers and 9 non-lawyers. Besides determining discipline and reinstatement cases, each serves on a committee related to the investigative process.
The office’s budget is funded by attorney registration fees. The office employs 12 attorneys including the director, six paralegals, an office administrator, 10 support staff and a law clerk.
Lawyers have the right to appeal most disciplinary decisions, and 175 took advantage of that process in 2016. The offices also received nearly 2,000 requests for an advisory opinion regarding legal issues.
There is a reinstatement process in which a disciplined attorney must prove “fitness and moral change.” An attorney has to show the Supreme Court that he or she merits a license, but many who get suspended often don’t return to practice because they haven’t met the requirements, Humiston said.
She was surprised to learn that lawyers with 11 to 20 years experience were the most disciplined group. She would have thought newer attorneys who didn’t have a mentor had more opportunities to get into trouble.
Kautzer said as attorneys gain more experience, they take on more difficult cases with increased risk and expectations. And as they age, they start to deal with health and personal issues that might have not been present when they were younger, he said.
Humiston worked in private practice for many years before joining a well-known local firm and later went to work for a company. Her job was being moved to Utah at the same time the director’s position opened up.
She’s never been disciplined, but she did receive a complaint from a pro bono case. She said her heart just sank when she got the letter marked “personal and confidential.”
“Most attorneys are engaged in best practices and take ethics standards seriously,” she said. “Most of the complaints we receive had to do with process or service received from the attorney.”