Lawyers tend to limit their practice to a few areas. Nonetheless, people come to us with myriad problems — many of which fall outside our expertise.
Through this column, we provide practical information to help you assist those who have employment, disability benefit, Workers’ Compensation, and related problems.
This article addresses best practices for appearances before the Attorney Grievance Committee [“AGC”] of the Seventh Judicial District. You may find yourself before the AGC as the subject of potential discipline or as counsel for a colleague in that situation. The advice applies well in both circumstances.
A complete discussion of the attorney disciplinary process in the Seventh Judicial District is beyond the scope of this article. You can find a helpful overview of the process by visiting: https://www.nycourts.gov/courts/ad4/AG/index.shtm
In short, AGC staff receive and investigate complaints against attorneys. When authorized by AGC members, they prosecute formal charges against attorneys before the Appellate Division, Fourth Department. AGC staff are employed by the State. Cydney A. Kelly, our Chief Counsel, leads the AGC staff.
AGC members are volunteers. Most are lawyers; three members of the AGC are non-lawyers. The AGC essentially serves like a grand jury.
When will you appear before the AGC?
You may appear before the AGC if our Chief Counsel recommends that: (1) you or your client receive private discipline (a letter of admonition); or (2) the matter is appropriate for formal charges. The latter recommendation, if approved by the AGC, means the case is sent to the 4th Department for consideration of the most serious and public discipline (e.g., censure, suspension, and disbarment).
Why is an appearance before the AGC important?
The AGC has the power to: (1) dismiss all charges against you/your client; (2) issue a non-disciplinary letter of advisement; (3) impose private discipline (a letter of admonition); or (4) send the case to the 4th Department. The AGC is NOT out to get you or your client. Our simple goals are to protect the public and to ensure that lawyers are treated fairly in the disciplinary process.
Dos and Don’ts for an AGC Appearance
Hire experienced counsel. Experienced counsel has saved countless licenses of attorneys in our community. You cannot be objective when you represent yourself. The economic loss from being disciplined or disbarred may be enormous. Do not skimp on legal fees needed to hire experienced counsel.
Be prepared to address AGC members directly. We want to know whether you truly understand where and why your conduct fell short. If we hear only from your counsel, we may not know whether you truly “get it.”
Be candid and humble. All AGC members have made mistakes while practicing law. Do not lie about your mistakes; instead, accept responsibility and be humble.
Respond truthfully to questions raised by AGC members and staff. Failing to cooperate or being untruthful during the AGC process is itself a violation of disciplinary rules. Do not make your situation worse by failing to cooperate or being untruthful.
Assume AGC members and staff know the record extremely well. AGC members come from eight counties and practice in almost every major area of law. They were selected because they know the legal community and are willing to review the entire record diligently before every appearance. We discuss the cases before and after each appearance. A question from an AGC member may be posed to try to influence the vote of another AGC member. The way that you or your client answers the question may determine how the AGC votes on the recommendation of Chief Counsel.
Do not insult AGC members, AGC staff, or the complainant. Address any questions about the motive for a complaint carefully. Focus on the merits of the complaint and NOT the character of the complainant. All AGC members and staff have represented difficult clients and, thus, we empathize with that situation. Although the motive for a complaint may be questionable, focus on the salient behavior. Insulting AGC members, AGC staff, or the complainant is never an effective strategy.
Accept responsibility for your actions and tell us what you learned. Many who find themselves before the AGC as the subject of potential discipline are “frequent flyers.” We do not want to see you again. Accept responsibility for your actions, tell us what you learned, and give us confidence that we will NOT see you again.
Apologize. Your lapse in ethical behavior hurts you, your client, others, and/or our profession. Make a sincere and REAL apology for this lapse. Avoid the “to the extent that my overly sensitive client was upset by my actions, I apologize.”
Consider concrete actions to avoid future trouble. One attorney pledged to no longer handle cases outside of their expertise. Another began regular treatment with a mental health counselor. Another hired a business coach to help them navigate the complexities of running a law practice. Another engaged a practice mentor. Yet another sent a written apology to the client adversely impacted by the ethical lapse. We recognized that there were no guarantees these attorneys would avoid future trouble; however, their willingness to take concrete actions to do so was well received by the AGC.
I hope to see you around town but NOT at the AGC.
Steven V. Modica, Esq. founded Modica Law Firm in 1995. Modica Law Firm handles labor and employment, disability benefit, Workers’ Compensation, and personal injury cases. Steve Modica is also an experienced mediator and arbitrator. He currently serves as Chairperson of the 7th Judicial District AGC.
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