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NY revises rules for disciplining attorneys

New York’s judiciary has adopted new rules for investigating and disciplining attorneys for misconduct in an effort to apply uniform rules statewide.

The rules adopted by all four of New York’s appellate divisions, effective July 1, followed proposals by a commission appointed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman early this year. New York has nearly 300,000 licensed lawyers, and the disciplinary committees receive about 11,000 to 12,000 complaints a year, with about 90 percent unfounded, according to the commission.

Lippman, whose term ends with his retirement later this week, said Tuesday that the rules will eliminate regional differences in how complaints and cases are handled. That should contribute “to the fair administration of justice and the integrity of the legal profession throughout the state,” he said.

Disciplinary committees in the appellate divisions and their chief attorneys will investigate and review cases, with proceedings kept confidential unless attorneys are disbarred or suspended for misconduct.

Each committee will have at least 21 members, with at least three non-lawyers. Actions taken can range from dismissing complaints to referring cases elsewhere, letters of advisement, admonitions and authorizing formal disciplinary proceedings after finding by “a fair preponderance of evidence” that the attorney engaged in professional misconduct.

An attorney may be suspended from practicing law on an interim basis during an investigation if the court finds “conduct immediately threatening the public interest” based on a failure to answer a complaint, an admission of misconduct or a willful failure to pay money owed to a client.

Lawyers who say they were impaired by drugs, alcohol or physical or mental illness can have their proceeding stayed while they complete a treatment program.

Those convicted of felonies will be disbarred, with their names stricken from the state’s roll of attorneys. That happened to former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver this year under existing rules, according to court officials.

Lippman announced earlier this year that attorneys’ public disciplinary histories are on the Unified Court System’s website through its directory of attorneys.

Rules of professional conduct are also posted on the website.

In a statement, the New York State Bar Association welcomed the new rules. NYSBA President David P. Miranda said the rules reflected the association’s concerns about the issue of discovery in the disciplinary process.

“We appreciate the opportunity to submit testimony and additional comments to the Commission regarding these important rules impacting the legal profession and the public. Recommendations by the Association on various issues have been incorporated into the final version of the Rules,” Miranda said.

“NYSBA supports the concept of uniform rules and we believe these new rules represent a very significant improvement to the process of attorney discipline.”

“We are also pleased that the final Rules are consistent with our long-standing position that confidentiality must be maintained during the disciplinary process in accordance with Section 90 of the State Judiciary Law. Section 90 protects the public and attorneys who are subject to a disciplinary investigation.”

Part 1240, Rules for Attorney Disciplinary Matters, was issued by the Office of Court Administration.