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Protection from Attorneys under Discipline


The term “legal ethics” describes the broad standards that govern the professional conduct of lawyers. Recognizing that lawyers who violate these standards can cause harm to their clients and the general public, the New Jersey Supreme Court has created a process for disciplining attorneys who violate them. This article describes three features of the system to help you better understand your rights, and explains how to begin the processes for resolving disputes with lawyers.

Standards of professional conduct

The professional standards for lawyers are defined by a combination of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (called the RPCs), case law/court decisions, and other legal authorities. Of these, the RPCs provide the most basic guidance. While some of the RPCs are written in plain language, they are best understood in the context of the particular facts and circumstances of your case. See the Rules of Professional Conduct (from New Jersey Courts).

Attorney discipline

The disciplinary system established by the Supreme Court is designed to “foster a fair and effective process” that “protects the public from unethical conduct by unfit lawyers.” It includes processes for:

  • Screening, investigating, prosecuting and hearing disciplinary cases.
  • Attorneys to appeal ethics violations cases.
  • Individuals to appeal cases when their allegations against an attorney have been dismissed.
  • Final disposition.
  • The imposition of discipline for ethics violations.

The state Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) supervises the attorney disciplinary system. You can reach them at 609-403-7800 or online at Office of Attorney Ethics (from New Jersey Courts), in the “attorney discipline” section. The site also contains a link to the disciplinary history of attorneys in New Jersey and tells whether they have ever been professionally disciplined. The history can be useful in deciding whether to hire a particular lawyer to represent you.

How do I file an ethics grievance?

A grievance is an allegation of unethical conduct made against an attorney. Filing a grievance is the first formal step in complaining about a lawyer and most matters are resolved at this step. Grievances can be filed by anyone. The filer is known as the “grievant”; the attorney against whom a grievance is made is called the “respondent.” All grievances must be in writing using an Attorney Ethics Grievance Form (from New Jersey Courts). The form requires detailed facts, the names and addresses of all witnesses, dates, and documents that may support the claim.

As noted on the OAE website, not every disagreement a client has with his or her lawyer rises to the level of an ethics violation. For example, misunderstandings, simple mistakes, personality differences, rude behavior, or even unfavorable results in the client’s case are not, in themselves, unethical in terms of the Rules of Professional Conduct. But the rules will help you decide whether your complaint warrants filing a grievance. If there is a word or phrase in the rules that you don’t understand, use the definitions list Rule 1:20. Discipline of Members of the Bar (from New Jersey Courts) for reference.

It is important to know that people who file grievances and people who serve as witnesses in ethics matters are “absolutely immune” from civil lawsuits for all communications with any office or personnel in the disciplinary system. You cannot be sued for filing a grievance or testifying at a hearing about your grievance.

Grievances are filed with a District Ethics Committee (DEC). A DEC is a committee of lawyers and nonlawyers in a specific geographical area who investigate allegations, hold hearings, and make initial recommendations for discipline or dismissal. Grievances are first sent to the district where the lawyer has his or her main law office. A list of DEC secretaries and their contact information is available at District Ethics Secretaries (from New Jersey Courts), or call 1-800-406-8594.

DECs cannot consider certain types of matters, most commonly, disputes between lawyers and clients over fees, and grievances about lawyer advertising or other communications. Separate committees handle such matters. A complete list of matters that ethics committees cannot consider is found at Rule 1:20. Discipline of Members of the Bar (from New Jersey Courts).  

What happens after I file a grievance?

Grievances are reviewed by the DEC secretary (a lawyer) who decides whether the grievance alleges “facts about conduct by a lawyer, which, if true, would be unethical.” If not, the grievance is dismissed and closed, and cannot be appealed. If the grievance does meet the standard of unethical conduct, it is “docketed” (opened) for DEC investigation.

All docketed grievances are investigated. The “respondent” (attorney) must file a written response to the grievance, and the “grievant” gets a summary of that response and has the opportunity to comment in writing. Both the grievant and respondent may be interviewed by the investigator, who then prepares a written report, including relevant facts and recommendations for further action or dismissal of the grievance. The report is sent to the DEC chairperson who decides if there is adequate proof of unethical conduct. The standard of proof is reasonably high and the grievance is dismissed if the DEC chair concludes there is no “reasonable prospect of proving unethical conduct.” The grievant is sent a written copy of the investigative report, which signals the end of the investigation. However, the decision to dismiss can be appealed. Instructions for doing so are included when the investigator’s report is sent to you. If the DEC chair determines there is adequate proof of unethical conduct, he or she will then consider whether the conduct is minor or more serious.

“Minor unethical conduct” results in low-level discipline the attorney can accept in an “agreement in lieu of discipline.” The attorney must agree to and complete conditions designed to correct the unethical conduct, usually within six months. Once the terms are met, the ethics grievance is dismissed. A finding of serious misconduct will result in formal charges, a hearing with witnesses under oath, an appeal process and possible discipline by the Supreme Court.

Fee Arbitration

What if a lawyer overcharges me?

The process for resolving fee disputes between lawyers and clients is called fee arbitration (see the Office of Attorney Ethics website). The process is designed to resolve fee disputes quickly and at a lower cost than filing a lawsuit. Fee arbitration decisions are binding, meaning they must be obeyed and can be enforced by a court, if necessary.

The basic ethical requirement for all attorneys is that their fees must be “reasonable.” A list of factors for determining the reasonableness of fees can be found at Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.5(a) (from New Jersey Courts). For clients who have not been regularly represented by the lawyer, or for clients whose fees will be determined by the outcome of a particular matter, the fee agreement must be made in writing, before or shortly after the lawyer accepts the case.

District Fee Arbitration Committees (fee committees) hear and resolve disputes. The state’s 17 fee committees have broad authority to decide disputes about lawyers fees. This includes matters where someone other than the client has to pay the fee. Fee committees can decline certain types of fee disputes and may be prevented from hearing certain others, such as a fee that a court or agency has awarded to the lawyer as a matter of “right.” A complete list of matters that DECs cannot consider is available at Office of Attorney Ethics (from New Jersey Courts) under “fee arbitration.”

How do I file for fee arbitration?

Before suing a client in court for an alleged fee, an attorney must send the client a formal notice about the client’s right to fee arbitration. The notice has to provide contact information for the specific District Fee Arbitration Committee secretary and must state that the client has 30 days to file for arbitration. If the client does not file within that time frame, he or she loses the right to use fee arbitration to resolve the dispute. Other important time limits on clients and lawyers can be found at Office of Attorney Ethics (from New Jersey Courts) in the “fee arbitration” section.

A client’s written request must include an original and five copies of the Attorney Fee Arbitration Request Form (from New Jersey Courts). Filing also requires a nonrefundable $50 administrative fee, paid by both client and lawyer. The arbitration request will not be considered unless this fee is paid. Clients who cannot afford the filing fee can request a waiver using a form that requires certain financial information. See the fee waiver How to File for a Fee Waiver - All Courts (from New Jersey Courts). Or call to request the form at 609-403-7800. Form instructions tell you where to send the completed form, but you should submit the fee waiver request before filing for fee arbitration.

The completed arbitration request, and either the filing fee or waiver approval letter, is sent to the district fee arbitration secretary in the county where the attorney’s office is located. See District Fee Secretaries (from New Jersey Courts) for the current list of secretaries. The statewide fee arbitration coordinator, 609-403-7800, ext. 34120, can help you find the correct secretary and answer other questions.

The lawyer seeking the fee is sent a copy of the client’s arbitration request form and must submit a response form with specific information about the basis for the fee. The attorney’s response is sent to the client.

The fee committee hearing

For disputed fees of $3,000 or less, one lawyer member of the committee may hear the matter. For larger amounts, a three-member panel made up of two lawyers and one nonlawyer hears disputes. For all hearings, there is a review of documentation, sworn testimony of client, attorney, and witnesses, and a written decision with a brief statement of reasons. The attorney seeking the fee has the burden of proving the nature of the fee agreement and the reasonableness of the fee. Under court rules, neither client nor lawyer can appeal a fee arbitration decision except on limited procedural grounds.

Because the parties to fee arbitration agree in advance that the arbitration decision will be binding, that decision will be enforced. If the fee committee decides that the client should receive a complete or partial refund, or the parties agree to a client refund, the attorney must comply within 30 days of the committee’s decision. A failure to do so can result in the lawyer’s temporary suspension. Clients should call the Office of Attorney Ethics if they have not received the refund after 30 days (609-403-7800 ext. 34120).

If the committee determines that the client owes a fee, the debt can be entered as a judgment against the client in court. The court will not be able to reverse or alter the decision. Once the fees are fully paid, the lawyer must provide a “warrant of satisfaction” and any legal action taken to settle the fee will be dismissed.

Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection

What to Do When Funds or Property are Dishonestly Taken by a Lawyer

The Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection was created by the New Jersey Supreme Court to reimburse clients for funds or property misappropriated or dishonestly taken by a lawyer. The fund is administered by a board of trustees, which sets policies and determines payment for claims. The program does not receive public money, and instead is funded entirely by an annual assessment on all lawyers and judges admitted to practice in New Jersey.

Requirements for filing a claim

Three requirements are considered in paying a claim filed with the Lawyer’s Fund:

  • The lawyer was acting as your lawyer and/or you gave the lawyer money in good faith, honesty and trust;
  • The lawyer used the money for his or her own purposes, without consent;
  • You suffered a loss due to the lawyer’s dishonest conduct.

Court rules list the requirements for, and limits on, reimbursement. For details, see Rule 1:28. New Jersey Lawyers Fund For Client Protection (from New Jersey Courts).

Claims can only be brought against lawyers who have died, been professionally disciplined (suspended or disbarred, for example), or who’ve pleaded guilty to, or been convicted of embezzlement or misappropriation of money or other property. Claims may also be considered when certified by an ethics committee.

Claims involving fee disputes, poor investments made by attorneys, and professional negligence or malpractice cannot be reimbursed.

Filing time limit. Your claim must be filed within one year of any of the above events. However, the time limit can be extended by the fund’s trustees due to special circumstances.

The current reimbursement limit is $400,000 per claimant (filer) for claims made after January 1, 2007. Total claims (by multiple claimants) against a single attorney are limited to $1.5 million. However, the Lawyers’ Fund can ask the NJ Supreme Court to increase the limit.

How do I file a claim?

There is a special form for filing a claim with the Lawyers’ Fund, and no charge for doing so. The form and instructions for completing it are available at New Jersey Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection Completing the Claim Form (from New Jersey Courts. Note: the form does not open in Google Chrome), or call 855-533-FUND (3863), option 2. You can also request the form by writing to: NJ Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, P.O. Box 961, Trenton, NJ 08625-0961.

The completed claim form must be submitted with your original signature along with two copies and proofs of claim (such as canceled checks, letters, etc.). When filing, you must also notify the county prosecutor where the lawyer practices and the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) explaining the facts underlying the Lawyers’ Fund claim. The OAE address is Office of Attorney Ethics, P.O. Box 963, Trenton, NJ 08625-0963.

Lawyers’ Fund staff can give you limited assistance in identifying how to prove your claim, but you have primary responsibility for completing the filing form and providing all relevant information and documents.

Once you file the claim, a copy of the completed form is sent to the attorney along with all of your documents. The attorney has an opportunity to reply and provide his or her own proof.

Lawyers’ Fund trustees may decide based solely on the written documentation, or they may conduct a hearing with testimony from you, the lawyer and other relevant witnesses. They will consider the terms of payment, your loss (including your loss compared to other claims against the same attorney), the degree of hardship you suffered, and the degree of your negligence, if any, in contributing to the loss. The decision of the trustees is final and cannot be appealed.

If you are successful in your claim, the Lawyer’s Fund may require you to assign your rights to the fund to seek repayment from the lawyer. This way, they can require the attorney to pay back the Lawyers’ Fund for the money you received from the fund.

For more information about the Lawyers’ Fund, see New Jersey Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection (from New Jersey Courts).