The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel in its administration of the Texas attorney discipline system is greatly supported by a number of other State Bar programs, departments, and Supreme Court-appointed committees. The work of these groups impacts the number of grievances filed against lawyers and/or provides rehabilitative assistance to lawyers who are disciplined.
The Client Attorney Assistance Program (CAAP) is a statewide dispute resolution program and service of the State Bar of Texas. It is available to the public and Texas lawyers. It assists clients and attorneys in resolving minor problems affecting their relationships. CAAP also supports the attorney discipline process by providing information about the grievance process and grievance forms upon request. In addition, CAAP makes referrals to appropriate State Bar of Texas departments, local bar associations, and other community and State of Texas programs and agencies that can assist those persons who contact CAAP for assistance.
The Advertising Review Committee (ARC) is responsible for reviewing lawyer advertisements and written solicitations as required by the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. The ARC, through the State Bar’s Advertising Review Department, manages the filing and review process for attorneys that market their services to the public to ensure that lawyers are complying with established ethical requirements.
The Law Practice Management Program was implemented by the State Bar of Texas to assist solo and small firm practitioners in the delivery of legal services by developing and promoting competent, professional, efficient, effective, economical, and innovative law office management practices. Often, a referral to the Bar’s Law Practice Management resources will be incorporated as a term of a disciplinary judgment as many Complaints stem from a lawyer’s lack of knowledge in the appropriate management of his or her law practice. Online tutorials are available to aid attorneys in acquiring the skills they need to manage a law office effectively and avoid further practice management-related Complaints.
The State Bar of Texas requires that every attorney complete 15 hours of continuing legal education (CLE) hours each year in order to maintain an active law license, three of which are required to be in the area of ethics. This requirement is known as Minimum Continuing Legal Education (MCLE).
The State Bar MCLE Department ensures that attorneys comply with the regulations and also approves courses for MCLE credit. Attorneys and course sponsors may access and update their MCLE records on the State Bar of Texas website. The department also offers an MCLE course search, which allows attorneys to search all approved CLE-accredited courses by date, topic, location, or sponsor.
Failure to comply with MCLE requirements can result in an administrative suspension from the practice of law. Practicing while on an administrative suspension is a violation of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.
The State Bar of Texas established the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program (TLAP) in 1989. TLAP’s mission is to assist lawyers challenged by substance use and other mental health disorders that are interfering or may interfere with their ability to practice law in an ethical and professional manner.
In addition to educating law students, lawyers, and judges about the types of impairments studies show disproportionately impact the legal profession, TLAP offers a variety of intervention, assessment and referral, and rehabilitative services to impaired lawyers. Calls to TLAP come either directly from the lawyer challenged by a substance use disorder or by another disorder such as depression, or from a “concerned other,” usually a friend, colleague, judge, or family member.
This past year, 50 percent of calls to TLAP were from or about lawyers with an apparent substance use disorder. The other 50 percent were from or about lawyers who are exhibiting moderate to severe symptoms of other mental health disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder.
Because of the nexus between mental health disorders, such as chemical dependency and depression, and lawyer misconduct, the incidence of misconduct on the part of impaired lawyers is reduced when lawyers participate in recovery programs appropriate to their illness. Since it was created, the number of lawyers TLAP has worked with in a given year has steadily increased.
The Grievance Oversight Committee (GOC) is charged to study, review, and advise the Supreme Court of Texas regarding the structure, function, and effectiveness of the discipline system. The GOC is composed of six attorneys and three public members appointed by the Supreme Court. The Committee is not part of the State Bar disciplinary process and neither considers nor resolves individual Complaints involving attorney-client issues. The Committee maintains a website (www.txgoc.com) and welcomes comments and suggestions from all interested parties.
The Professional Ethics Committee (PEC) is a nine-member committee appointed by the Supreme Court of Texas pursuant to Texas Government Code section 81.091. The Committee is charged with the responsibility of expressing opinions on the propriety of questions of professional conduct, which arise either upon a request for opinion by a State Bar member or upon the Committee’s own initiative. These opinions are published in the Texas Bar Journal.
The Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee (UPLC) is appointed by the Supreme Court of Texas and is charged with preventing the unauthorized practice of law. The UPLC is composed of nine volunteer lawyers and laypersons appointed to three-year terms.
The practice of law by persons who are not authorized to do so frequently hurts the clients they are trying to help, resulting in the loss of money, property, or liberty. The State of Texas limits the practice of law to persons who have demonstrated their knowledge of the law through education, who have passed a rigorous examination on the laws of Texas including the rules of ethics, and who have passed a character review. The UPLC is prohibited from giving advisory opinions.
To ensure the public is protected from those who practice law illegally, the UPLC has divided the state into five regions: Northern, Central, Southern, Eastern, and Western. The UPLC has created 38 district subcommittees within the regions. Chairpersons are appointed to head the regional and district subcommittees. The busiest district subcommittees are Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, and Corpus Christi. The UPLC maintains a website at www.txuplc.org where individuals can fill out a complaint online and learn more about the workings of the Committee.
CDC maintains, as a service to the members of the Bar, a toll-free Attorney Ethics Helpline, operated from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The Helpline is designed to assist Texas attorneys who have questions about their ethical obligations to clients, courts, and the public under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. The information disseminated is designed to give attorneys access to rules, ethics opinions, and case law so that an attorney can make an informed decision about an ethics issue. Pursuant to the policy of the State Bar Board of Directors, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel and her staff are not permitted to issue written opinions or advice.
The Attorney Ethics Helpline does not provide legal assistance to the general public and cannot address questions concerning pending grievances.
During the 2011-12 Bar year, the Helpline handled more than 5,500 ethics calls. Common areas of inquiry include conflicts, confidentiality, safekeeping property, termination of representation, candor to the tribunal and fairness in adjudicatory proceedings, communicating with a represented person, fee-splitting or engaging in business with non-lawyers, advertising and solicitation, and the duty to report misconduct.
The Ethics Helpline number is (800) 532-3947.
Every state in the U.S. and province in Canada has some form of
client protection fund. Texas’s fund is called the Client
Security Fund and holds more than $3 million in its corpus. Payouts are
funded through an annual appropriation from the Bar, currently
$550,000; interest on the corpus; and any restitution received.
Ray is responsible for conducting investigations on applications and presenting recommendations to the Subcommittee. In 2011-12, Ray presented 131 applications to the Subcommittee. Of the 131, 98 were approved, resulting in grants totaling $640,604. Of the approved applications, 15 involved attorney theft and 83 involved the failure to refund unearned fees.
Applications involving attorney theft were down by nearly 50 percent in 2011-12. It is believed that a major contributing factor to the decline is the advisory bulletin issued with the State Bar’s encouragement by the Texas Department of Insurance in 2009. The bulletin advised insurance companies to notify client payees when a settlement check is mailed to their lawyers.
Unless the lawyer is already disbarred, resigned in lieu of discipline, or deceased, eligible applicants must file a grievance which results in findings that the lawyer stole the client’s money, or failed to refund an unearned fee. Applicants must present proof of their losses, and meet the statute of limitations for the Fund, which is 18 months following the date of the disciplinary judgment. To submit an online application to the Client Security Fund, please click here.