Are lawyers more ethical?
July 24, 2023
As usual, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a slew of cases in June, clearing the calendar for the end of their term. Of the cases filed, only two were disciplinary cases. With over 25,000 members of the State Bar, this seems a miniscule number. A couple of years ago, I researched the number of grievances filed against Wisconsin lawyers. Gregg Herman, “Where have all the grievances gone?”, Wisconsin Law Journal, November 11, 2021. In that article I reported that the number of grievances filed fell from a high of 2,677 in OLR’s FY 2012 to 1,518 in FY 2020. I speculated that one possible reason was the pandemic, which resulted in fewer cases litigated and therefore fewer disgruntled clients.
With the pandemic behind us, it seems like a good time to look at updated numbers. The result is that while the drop in numbers stabilized, they remain at historic lows. Specifically, OLR received 1,489 grievances in FY21. A reduction of over 44% over nine years is remarkable, even more so when one remembers that there are more lawyers today than nine years ago.
What is the cause? Well, it is NOT due to the severity of discipline meted out by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in cases which are prosecuted. I’ve frequently criticized the court in past columns for its leniency and their recent cases show that they have not suddenly developed teeth.
One of the June of 2023 cases is In Matter of Disciplinary Proceedings Against William H. Green, 2023WI 55. In that case, the court found that Green violated 24 counts of professional misconduct arising out of six separate client matters. Green had a prior disciplinary history of a private reprimand and a public reprimand. For his third disciplinary action – for which he did not even bother to show up for the hearing – the Supreme Court suspended his license for two years. It makes you wonder what it takes for a lawyer to get his license revoked.
And just so no one thinks I’m being selective, in the other case decided in June, the court was similarly mild. In In the Matter of Disciplinary Proceedings Against Brian T. Stevens, 2023WI 56, the court suspended Stevens’ license for 60 days for six counts of professional misconduct, including trust account violations. Like Green, Stevens had a prior disciplinary record, consisting of a private reprimand. Not exactly tough.
I also don’t believe that mandatory CLE plays a role, although I suppose that it could be argued that it does. My experience with mandatory CLE is that it does a better job creating a business for providers than educating lawyers, many of who are too busy engaging with their cell phones than paying attention to the program. That is, for those in physical attendance, which is all too rare in the age of Zoom.
So, what explains these numbers? My guess is that it is largely due to the prevalence of ADR options, most particularly mediation. The number of civil trials has dwindled enormously. Since people tend to be more satisfied with a resolution which they agree to rather than one shoved down their throat, clients are less angry with their lawyer and therefore, less likely to file a grievance. Of course, there is also the increased number of pro se litigants, especially in family courts, which means there is not even a lawyer to get angry at.
One negative result for me, personally, it has been quite a while since I have been retained by OLR as retained counsel. It was a role which I enjoyed over the years. But the positive attributes – whatever the reason – well outweigh any personal detriment.