By Michelle Suskauer
If you’re like most of the 102,000 members of The Florida Bar, your ethics and professionalism are a credit to the legal community. You’re a bit fuzzy on the intricacies of the lawyer regulation system, but that’s just fine with you.
There are reasons, though, why every lawyer should understand the Bar’s procedures for investigating and prosecuting disciplinary complaints. In a series of stories over the next few issues, the News will explain how this system works, from the initial complaint through the investigation, review, trial and, ultimately, a final discipline order by the Florida Supreme Court.
The Florida Bar is unique in how it disciplines its members. The process can be scary, but it’s important that we understand it — first, to avoid pitfalls in our own practices, but also to appreciate the ways we are protecting the public and the lawyers who practice in Florida.
The Bar expends resources, staff, and thousands of hours on the disciplinary process. More than 35 percent of the Bar’s operating expenses goes to lawyer regulation — that’s more than $15 million in the 2015-16 budget year.
The Bar devotes 123 full-time employees at its Tallahassee headquarters and five branch offices to this process, and that’s on top of the many dedicated volunteer members who help ensure that lawyers who stray are rehabilitated, punished or, in the worse cases, removed from the profession.
I have seen this incredible dedication firsthand in my two years as chair of the Board of Governors Disciplinary Review Committee (DRC). New members of the BOG are automatically assigned to this committee, the largest of the BOG’s committees, but many of us continue because we have a passion for the work.
The DRC oversees prosecution and appeals in the process and also reviews and recommends disciplinary actions that require review by the full Board of Governors. At our last meeting of the DRC, we had more than 6,000 pages of documents to review, yet this is no rubber-stamp committee. Any member can raise questions about any case, and we are continually re-educating ourselves and other on trending topics of discipline.
It’s important work, and we owe it to our members and the public to be as thorough and transparent as possible.
The Bar receives approximately 20,000 complaints each year. From those, more than 5,000 files are opened and investigated, and 600 will go to the local grievance committees.
Every lawyer should understand how complaints are reviewed, and it is important for the public to know that each and every complaint is taken seriously.
I hope you’ll take the time to read this News series on the disciplinary process and gain a new appreciation of the care, hard work, and institutional knowledge that make the system work — and make The Florida Bar an effective guardian of the integrity of the legal profession.