Guide to Lawyer Discipline
This pamphlet explains how the VSB deals with complaints about lawyers.
The purpose of the VSB disciplinary system is to determine whether a lawyer has violated a legal ethics rule and, if so, to impose appropriate discipline on the lawyer.
The Virginia State Bar is genuinely concerned with your complaint. It will receive our full attention and be resolved as quickly as possible. We appreciate your concerns and value your assistance in the regulation and discipline of Virginia lawyers.
While VSB staff investigate and evaluate complaints, volunteer lawyers and members of the public decide whether a complaint that has been investigated merits disciplinary action.
The Disciplinary Process
The disciplinary process consists of four stages. Many complaints are resolved before going through all the stages.
Stage 1: Preliminary Investigation
We have assigned your complaint to a VSB attorney, called bar counsel, for investigation. The bar counsel will send your complaint to the lawyer you complained about and request a written response. Most lawyers respond to bar complaints.
If we receive a response from the lawyer, we will send it to you for comment. Your input will help the bar counsel analyze the merits of the complaint.
We try to complete the preliminary investigation in about 75 days after the bar counsel receives your complaint file. However, the preliminary investigation of your complaint may take longer, depending on our office’s caseload and the complexity of your complaint. Also, sometimes lawyers ask for more time to respond to a complaint.
When we finish our preliminary investigation, we will notify you that:
- your complaint has been dismissed
- your complaint has been referred for a more detailed investigation.
If your complaint is dismissed, the bar counsel will explain to you, in writing, the reasons for the dismissal.
Stage 2: More Investigation
The bar counsel investigating your complaint may decide that the VSB should gather more information about your complaint. If so, we will refer the complaint to a district committee made up of lawyers and nonlawyers. We will also assign an investigator to interview people and examine documents relating to the complaint. The investigator will write a report for the bar counsel.
After we notify you that your complaint is in Stage 2, the investigator may not contact you for several months because he or she is investigating other complaints received before yours. Please be patient. We track all complaints, and we will thoroughly investigate your complaint. We will contact you when we need to get information from you or when we have news to tell you about how the complaint is progressing.
Stage 3: District Committee Review
The bar counsel reviews the investigator’s report and makes a recommendation to a subcommittee of two lawyers and one layperson. The subcommittee will dismiss the complaint if it decides the investigation did not produce sufficient evidence to prove that the lawyer violated a legal ethics rule.
If the subcommittee decides that the evidence could not prove misconduct, the subcommittee will dismiss the complaint. You will receive a written explanation of why your complaint was dismissed.
Sometimes the subcommittee will impose a low level of discipline on the lawyer without a hearing. This is discipline that is recorded on the lawyer’s permanent VSB record.
Stage 4: Evidentiary Hearing
If the district committee decides that the lawyer’s conduct should result in a hearing, the district committee will schedule an evidentiary hearing. You have a right to attend the hearing, and you may need to testify under oath. The bar counsel handling the case will present evidence and legal argument.
After hearing evidence from the VSB and the lawyer, the district committee will decide if the lawyer violated an ethics rule. If the district committee decides that the lawyer violated an ethics rule, it will impose discipline, which will be recorded on the lawyer’s permanent VSB record.
In cases of serious misconduct, the district committee can send the case to a higher body, the Disciplinary Board. Only the Disciplinary Board can suspend the lawyer’s license for up to 5 years or revoke the attorney’s licence to practice law.
IN ALL CASES, YOU WILL BE NOTIFIED OF THE OUTCOME OF YOUR COMPLAINT.
When a lawyer is disciplined, the VSB records the discipline imposed on the lawyer’s permanent record. The main levels of discipline are:
- The lawyer can receive a PRIVATE REPRIMAND or ADMONITION for less serious rule violations;
- The lawyer can receive a PUBLIC REPRIMAND for more serious rule violations;
- The lawyer’s license can be SUSPENDED for up to five years, during which time the lawyer cannot practice law; or
- The lawyer’s license can be REVOKED.
Frequently Asked Questions
Must I wait until after the VSB takes action before I file a civil action?
No. Most civil actions must be filed within a certain amount of time, or you will lose your rights to proceed. If you are thinking of taking any civil action on your original case, or against the lawyer, you should consult an attorney in private practice as soon as possible.
When should I give the VSB copies of the paperwork relating to my case?
If you have not already done so, you should give us copies of all documents that directly relate to your complaint against the lawyer.
What are my duties as a complainant?
- Tell us if your address or telephone numbers change. We may need to interview you, and you may need to testify at a hearing.
- When you write or call us, please tell us the VSB Docket Number assigned to your complaint.
- Respect the confidentiality of the disciplinary system, discussed in more detail below.
- BE PATIENT. If we are unable to address your complaint as quickly as you would like, it is because we are handling other complaints. We consider EACH COMPLAINT important and worthy of our full attention.
How can I find out what is going on with my complaint?
The VSB will notify you, in writing, about significant developments. If you have questions, please send them, in writing, to the bar counsel assigned to your complaint.
Do I need a lawyer in the VSB complaint process?
Generally, a complainant does not need a lawyer to pursue a complaint against a lawyer. The bar counsel does not represent you in the complaint process and is not authorized to give you legal advice.
Under the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia, the complaint process is confidential unless the lawyer receives public discipline (admonition, public reprimand, suspension or revocation) or a matter is scheduled on the public hearing docket maintained by the Clerk of the Disciplinary System.
The confidentiality requirement means that the VSB cannot and will not discuss your complaint with anyone except you, the lawyer about whom you complain, people who might have information about your complaint, and other persons within the disciplinary system.
Please note that the confidentiality of the complaint process will not protect you from being sued by a lawyer who believes he or she has been wrongly accused in a bar complaint. If you are worried about being sued, you should consult a lawyer. VSB staff cannot advise you about your potential liability or a lawsuit.
The following diagram briefly explains how a complaint is processed.
Virginia State Bar
Office of Bar Counsel
Eighth & Main Building
707 East Main Street, Suite 1500
Richmond, VA 23219-2800
Telephone: (804) 775-0500
TDD/Voice Line (Hearing impaired): (804) 775-0502
revised October 2011Updated: Oct 12, 2011