Solo Newsletter

Summer 2003

"An Inquiry Has Been Received . . ."

By Diane M. Ellis

Talk about a 10-pound block of ice in the pit of your stomach! As the former director of the State Bar of Arizona's Lawyer Assistance Programs, I recommend the following tips for dealing with a disciplinary complaint:

  • Know that complaints do come from clients for whom you've made extraordinary efforts. That hurts. But if you've had to try that hard, it may be that the client had unrealistic expectations. Pleasing them is nearly impossible. Improve your intake process and "fire" clients (ethically) when needed.
  • If it was a pro bono case (yes, pro bono clients complain), remember that the client lacked "checkbook restraint." Next time, use a fee agreement to spell out exactly what the client gets for free.
  • Some time feeling what needs to be felt. It's normal to experience anger, guilt, anxiety, and fear. If you're embarrassed, talking to a person-lawyer or not-may not be an option. But you can talk to your dog or cat; furry animals always maintain confidentiality. Or write down your thoughts and feelings. Venting on paper is healthy and harmless.
  • Don't assume you did something wrong because someone said so. But don't assume you didn't. It's easy to discount a complaint from disturbed clients, but even they are occasionally right. Defensive feelings are to be expected, but defensive behavior is not helpful.
  • Recognize that you can't be objective. Get another lawyer to review the case with you, preferably an experienced respondents' counsel. A lawyer friend who can be honest will do in a pinch.
  • When you've cooled down, take another look at the complaint. Use it as an opportunity to improve. Answer these questions: If you could do the case over, given hindsight, would you do it differently? Can you learn something from this complaint that could prevent another one?
  • Strong emotions are a normal reaction, but, eventually, you must move on. If you spend more time seething about the complaint than enjoying your life, it's time to seek professional help. Talking with a counselor is a wise investment if it gets you back on track. Most state bars and law societies have some type of lawyer assistance program to help members deal with stress, emotional upsets, or impairments resulting from chemical dependency. That's a good place to start.

Diane Ellis is a lawyer practice management consultant in Springfield, Missouri. Contact her at


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