Contrary to common belief, it is the Supreme Court of Missouri - not The Missouri Bar - which is in charge of the state's lawyer discipline system. In order to protect the public, the Supreme Court oversees a mechanism for investigation and, where necessary, discipline of lawyers who fail to meet their professional obligations. Examples of misconduct which may draw disciplinary action are: neglect (failure to communicate, failure to perform agreed upon duties, delay, etc.); trust violations (embezzlement of funds entrusted to a lawyer by or for a client); conflict of interest; and misleading advertising.
Depending upon the nature and severity of a complaint made against a lawyer, up to five different groups may be involved in the investigation and/or disciplining of a lawyer. These are:
Anyone who believes that a lawyer has engaged in unethical conduct may file a complaint with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel in Jefferson City. The complaint will be screened to determine whether the matter is the proper subject for a disciplinary investigation. If not, the complaining person (the complainant) will be notified and no file will be opened. In some instances it is appropriate to refer the complainant to the Complaint Resolution Program administered by The Missouri Bar or a fee dispute resolution program. Local bar associations in St. Louis and Kansas City operate fee dispute resolution programs serving those areas, while The Missouri Bar administers such a program for the rest of the state. Once a complaint file is opened, the complaint will be investigated by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel or by a Regional Disciplinary Committee. The investigation may be entirely in writing, or it may involve telephone calls and personal interviews. Based on the results of the investigation, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel (or a Regional Disciplinary Committee) will take one of the following three actions:
The complainant will be notified of the action taken. The complainant may challenge a decision to close a file. The complainant has 30 days to request a review by the Advisory Committee. If a lawyer fails to respond to notice of an Information within 30 days, the Supreme Court may enter an order imposing discipline by default. However, if the lawyer timely requests a hearing on the Information, the Advisory Committee will appoint a Disciplinary Hearing Panel.
The Advisory Committee will assign the case to a Disciplinary Hearing Panel. The Disciplinary Hearing Panel will hear evidence presented by the Chief Disciplinary Counsel and any evidence submitted by the lawyer charged. It is likely that the complainant may be asked to testify under oath at this hearing, as in a regular court proceeding. After this hearing, the Disciplinary Hearing Panel will decide whether a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct has occurred and recommend any of the following actions:
Either the lawyer or the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel may appeal any recommendation of the Disciplinary Hearing Panel to the Supreme Court of Missouri.
If there is no agreement between the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel and the lawyer, the Supreme Court of Missouri will review the recommendation of the Disciplinary Hearing Panel. This may include the preparation of written briefs and oral arguments. The Court then will impose appropriate discipline on the lawyer. The Supreme Court also has the authority, if it so chooses, to review any recommendation of the Disciplinary Hearing Panel, even if there has been concurrence by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel and the lawyer in the recommended discipline. The matter is not final until the Supreme Court issues an order of discipline. The complaining parties do not participate at this level, but may be present at Supreme Court arguments.
A lawyer's conviction of a criminal charge may also lead to disciplinary action by the Supreme Court. The Court may issue an order to a lawyer who has been found guilty of a felony, or certain misdemeanors, to show cause why he or she should not be suspended from the practice of law pending the final disposition of the criminal appellate process. This action may be initiated only by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. The Chief Disciplinary Counsel and Regional Disciplinary Committees may also conduct investigations of lawyers who may no longer be able to practice law due to physical or mental conditions or because of addiction to alcohol or other drugs. The Supreme Court will immediately suspend any lawyer who is found by a court to be incapacitated or otherwise unable to practice law. In some cases, a lawyer being investigated for ethical misconduct may voluntarily surrender his or her license. When this happens, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel submits reports and recommendations regarding the matter to the Supreme Court. Similar action is taken by the Chief Disciplinary Counsel when a lawyer who has been suspended or disbarred seeks reinstatement of a law license.
To assist in the investigatory process, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel has authority to issue subpoenas for documents and witnesses to testify under oath. In order to protect the public, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel also has the power to investigate the unauthorized practice of law by non-lawyers. In connection with that mandate, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel may institute and prosecute proceedings against any party which, after thorough investigation, is suspected of engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. The Chief Disciplinary Counsel also refers many of these situations to the Missouri Attorney General and local prosecuting attorneys. By calling the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, you can obtain the following information about a specific Missouri attorney:
Complaints must be in writing. There is a form for filing a complaint at the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel's website, at www.mochiefcounsel.org. The form may assist you in preparing your complaint but is not required. You may prepare a letter instead, or in addition to, the form. You should send your complaint to OCDC, 3335 American Avenue, Jefferson City, MO 65109-1079. Complaints are also accepted by fax. The fax number is (573) 635-2240. The telephone number is (573) 635-7400. In the complaint, give the name and address of the attorney that your complaint is against, tell what kind of matter the attorney was handling (for example, family law or criminal), state the facts in your own words about what happened, and what your concerns are. Please be sure to include your full name, address, and telephone number. The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel cannot tell you over the telephone whether you have a valid complaint, and cannot give you legal advice.
The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel investigates complaints against attorneys only. It does not investigate complaints against judges. To make a complaint against a Missouri judge, write to: James M. Smith Administrator and Counsel Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline of Judges 2190 South Mason Road, Suite 201 St. Louis, MO 63131 For information, call (314) 966-1007.
The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel cannot handle fee disputes. Several bar associations in Missouri have set up programs for this purpose. These programs are free. Participation in these programs is entirely voluntary. If you have a fee dispute with a Missouri attorney in the St. Louis area, call (314) 421-4134. If the attorney is in the Kansas City area, call (816) 474-4322. If the attorney is in any other part of the state, call The Missouri Bar at (573) 635-4128.
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Paid for by The Missouri Bar Sebrina Barrett, Executive Director PO Box 119 Jefferson City, MO 65102