The more things change, the more they stay the same. From the linked annual report of the Lawyer’s Professional Responsibility Board, we learn that 2016 was quite similar to previous years in terms of the number of complaints, the nature of the complaints, and the nature of the discipline imposed (ranging from disbarment at one extreme and “private admonition” at the other). There was a slight up-tick in the severity of discipline applied (“Calendar 2016 was also a year for higher than average public discipline with 44
attorneys receiving public discipline, down from the prior year record high of 65 attorneys receiving public discipline. An “average” year for public discipline is 36…”).
Of potential interest, we note that there was significantly more discipline of lawyers with 11-20 years of practice than those with 0-10 years of experience. This might surprise some readers. It might be caused by greater caseloads by more experienced lawyers (and therefore greater risk of negligence) or maybe by older lawyers not keeping up with new technologies which affect community standards for things like diligence or communication?
And can you guess what areas of practice trigger the most complaints against lawyers?
Family law and criminal law (see report at p. 3).
This is likely due to several “aggravating factors” about these areas of practice. First, clients in these areas of the law are generally less educated than other areas of practice, which increases the risk of misunderstandings. Second, these areas of law are often volume-based areas of practice under great cost pressure, so practitioners’ most precious resource (time) is stretched thin. Third, there is simply a lot more family law and criminal law happening than other areas of law.
Considering the annual report in its totality, aside from the significant delay in completing the Responsibility Board’s regulatory responsibilities (which is improving under new leadership), it seems to us that the 2016 report illustrates that Minnesota lawyers, as a whole, are a generally well-working professional group. There is no question that substance abuse, mental health issues, and other conditions impair some small percentage of Minnesota lawyers and take a toll year after year. On the other hand, notwithstanding the public relations problems that U.S. lawyers have had for decades, if not centuries, Minnesota lawyers are doing pretty well and also doing good.
If only we could address our “real doughnut hole problem,” as Hennepin County Judge Susan Robiner has put it. That is, aside from criminal defendants who benefit from Gideon v. Wainwright,the destitute fortunate to qualify for and receive legal aid, and those whose injuries are serious enough to entertain contingent fee legal services agreements, most Minnesotans simply cannot afford lawyers in many circumstances where they need them. We have market failure — significant demand, adequate supply, and still inefficient, unfair, suboptimal distribution of resources — and no solutions in sight.