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When your lawyer is not the best

Here's how to take action.

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For some of our readers, this "Best Lawyers" edition may be arriving too late to be useful. However, there is a way to report bad legal representation, and it can result in penalties for the offending attorney. Official complaints are handled by the Arkansas Supreme Court's Office of Professional Conduct, and the process is simple. You do not have to retain legal counsel or have familiarity with the law to file a complaint, and anonymous submissions are accepted. The two-page form is available by visiting the Office of Professional Conduct in the Justice Building at 625 Marshall St., or by calling 376-0313. According to Stark Ligon, the executive director of the Office of Professional Conduct, every complaint is assigned to a staff attorney, who then does some preliminary investigation. "If we determine there is sufficient evidence of violations, we will prepare a formal complaint and serve it on the attorney in question," Ligon said. "Generally, this is the first notice the attorney has that a complaint has been filed." The accused attorney has an opportunity to respond and the accuser can respond in turn. The written case file is then brought before one of three standing panels for a review and a vote. Each panel consists of five lawyers and two non-lawyers, all appointed by the Supreme Court. "If the panel decides to sanction the attorney, an order is prepared and served on the attorney," Ligon explained. "He or she has the option to accept the sanction or request a public hearing from another panel." Ligon emphasized that the panel that conducts the public hearing would not know the action taken by the first panel, because all proceedings are kept confidential until a public hearing or a final order is entered into the record. Sanctioned attorneys can appeal to the Supreme Court as a last resort. Relatively few Arkansas lawyers are publicly punished, but the number of formal complaints filed by the Office of Professional Conduct has been increasing in recent years. Approximately 8,500 people have an Arkansas law license, but Ligon estimates that only 5,000 actually practice here. In 2003, his office received more than 1,000 written complaints, and exactly 200 merited formal charges, resulting in 121 disciplinary actions. This year, Ligon says that they are on track to file more than 200 complaints. A sanction may be as light as a warning or as serious as disbarment. However, all sanctions are publicly noted in the Arkansas Lawyer, a publication of the Arkansas Bar Association. You can also find complete disciplinary records of Arkansas attorneys at http://courts.state.ar.us/courts/cpc.html. The most common complaints involve attorneys who fail to discharge their duties, which most frequently means they have neglected their clients or caused inexcusable delays in court business. Following close behind are citations of attorneys who have been dishonest, deceitful, or fraudulent. Cases that result in a sanction are described in some detail by the Office of Professional Conduct. Mostly they involve attorneys who do not file papers on time or misrepresent the amount of work they have done. Occasionally, however, there are more interesting situations. For example, Fredye Mac Long of Texarkana was representing a woman in a 2003 divorce case when she became romantically involved with the lawyer who was representing the woman's husband, according to public records of the complaint. Long never told her client about the relationship, and subsequently filed a motion to withdraw the divorce. According to the sanction report, "the manner in which Ms. Long handled her motion to withdraw did not give [her client] reasonable notice so she could have had the chance to object to the motion, if she so desired." Long was cautioned, fined $1,000, and assessed costs of $50 for rules violations. She also ended up marrying the other attorney. Ligon cautions that his office rarely gets involved in fee disputes, because that is usually the domain of civil courts. The office also does not consider complaints against prosecutors for filing or not filing criminal charges. Voters are the usual recourse for complaints about charging decisions by prosecutors.. Only 20 percent of the written complaints received by Ligon's office result in a sanction against an attorney.

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