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Washington, D.C's Attorney Discipline Process: A Comprehensive Overview


  1. Disciplinary Counsel: Appointed by the D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility, Disciplinary Counsel serves as the chief prosecutor for attorney disciplinary matters involving active or inactive attorneys who are members of the D.C. Bar. Their role is to investigate all complaints and allegations of ethical misconduct, ensuring accountability and maintaining public confidence in the legal profession. Disciplinary Counsel initiates appropriate resolutions, which can range from diversions, dismissals, and informal admonitions to the preparation of formal charges.

  2. Contact Members: D.C. Bar Hearing Committees include Contact Members who play a crucial role in overseeing Disciplinary Counsel’s initial investigation of attorney grievances. These members are appointed by the Board’s Executive Attorney at the outset of an investigation. They have the power and duty to review and approve or suggest modifications of recommendations made by Disciplinary Counsel. This includes dismissals, informal admonitions, the institution of formal charges, and the deferral or abatement of disciplinary investigations pending the outcome of related criminal or civil litigation.

  3. Hearing Committee: Once Disciplinary Counsel files a petition to institute formal disciplinary proceedings, a Hearing Committee is formed. This committee consists of two attorneys and a layperson who collectively conduct an evidentiary hearing. Their role is to carefully examine the evidence, hear testimony, and evaluate the facts presented. Within 120 days of the hearing, the Hearing Committee is responsible for filing a comprehensive report of factual findings and recommendations to the Board on Professional Responsibility.

  4. Board on Professional Responsibility: The D.C. Bar’s Board on Professional Responsibility serves as the governing body that oversees the attorney grievance discipline process. Comprised of nine members, including seven attorneys and two laypersons, the Board meets regularly to review the recommendations made by Hearing Committees. They also handle cases referred by the Court of Appeals, including criminal conviction referrals, reciprocal discipline matters, petitions for negotiated discipline, petitions for reinstatement, and emergency temporary suspensions. In cases where a party objects to a Hearing Committee’s recommendation, all nine members of the Board will hear oral arguments. The Board has the authority to issue final disciplinary orders, dismiss complaints, direct Disciplinary Counsel to issue letters of informal admonition, and impose private reprimands.

  5. D.C. Court of Appeals: As the highest court in Washington, D.C., the D.C. Court of Appeals has the ultimate authority over attorney disciplinary proceedings. While the Court gives significant deference to the findings and recommendations of the Board on Professional Responsibility, it serves as the final arbiter in determining the outcome of disciplinary cases. The Court’s decisions have far-reaching implications for the attorneys involved and play a critical role in upholding ethical standards within the legal community.

Understanding the intricate workings of Washington, D.C.’s attorney discipline process is essential for attorneys, clients, and the general public. This comprehensive overview highlights the key entities involved, their responsibilities, and the significance of their roles in maintaining the integrity and professionalism of the legal profession in the nation’s capital.

Investigation & Informal Resolution: Navigating the Attorney Grievance Process in Washington, D.C.

When it comes to addressing complaints against attorneys, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel plays a crucial role in investigating allegations of professional misconduct or incapacity. Understanding the steps involved in the disciplinary process is essential. Let’s delve into the detailed procedures for investigation and informal resolution:

  1. Disciplinary Counsel’s Initial Investigation: Upon receiving a complaint against an attorney, Disciplinary Counsel takes charge of conducting a thorough investigation. While some complaints originate from other sources, most are filed by dissatisfied clients. The Board on Professional Responsibility appoints a member of its Hearing Committee, known as the “Contact Member,” to oversee each investigation. The Contact Member reviews and approves or suggests modifications to Disciplinary Counsel’s recommendations regarding dismissals, informal admonitions, formal charges, or deferral/abatement pending related litigation outcomes.

  2. The Attorney’s Response: Typically, investigations begin with a letter addressed to the attorney in question. This letter outlines the complainant’s identity, describes the nature of the alleged misconduct, and includes a request for the attorney’s response along with relevant supporting documents. Attorneys are expected to promptly and fully cooperate with the investigation. The initial response is a critical step as it helps determine the direction and severity of further actions. Non-cooperation or evasive approaches may invite additional scrutiny and potential sanctions.

  3. Post-Investigation Procedure: Following the investigation, Disciplinary Counsel, with the approval of the Contact Member, may take several courses of action:

    a. Dismissal: If the complaint lacks merit or fails to substantiate misconduct, Disciplinary Counsel may dismiss it.

    b. Informal Admonition: In cases where the misconduct is relatively minor, Disciplinary Counsel may issue an informal admonition to the attorney. While considered the lightest form of sanction, it is a matter of public record. Attorneys have the option to decline the informal admonition and request formal hearings before a Hearing Committee, leading to the dismissal of the admonition and the institution of formal charges.

    c. Deferral: Disciplinary Counsel may defer the investigation if related criminal or civil litigation is ongoing. This approach ensures that the disciplinary process aligns with the outcome of the pending legal proceedings.

    d. Formal Charges: In more serious cases of professional misconduct, Disciplinary Counsel may proceed with formal charges against the attorney. This initiates a comprehensive process to pursue appropriate sanctions.

  4. Alternatives to Discipline: Under the approval of a member of the Board on Professional Responsibility, Disciplinary Counsel may explore alternatives to discipline. This includes diversion agreements and negotiation of suitable sanctions with the attorney, considering the circumstances and severity of the misconduct.

Understanding the investigation and informal resolution stages within the attorney grievance process empowers attorneys and clients alike. By adhering to ethical obligations, providing thorough responses, and cooperating fully, attorneys can effectively navigate this process. The goal is to maintain professional integrity, ensure accountability, and safeguard the reputation of the legal profession in Washington, D.C.

Formal Disciplinary Proceedings: Navigating the Legal Process in Washington, D.C.


When a complaint against an attorney progresses to formal proceedings, the disciplinary process enters a more structured and accelerated phase. As an attorney, it is crucial to understand the intricacies of these proceedings. Let’s explore the various stages involved:

  1. Filing of Formal Charges: If a complaint is not dismissed or resolved through agreement, Disciplinary Counsel initiates formal proceedings by filing a sworn petition with the Board’s Executive Attorney. This petition must provide clear and specific details of the alleged misconduct to ensure the attorney has adequate notice. Unlike the investigation phase, the filing of a petition triggers a faster process. Even before the attorney files a response, a hearing is scheduled by the Board’s Executive Attorney, assigning the matter to a Hearing Committee for discovery and an evidentiary hearing.

  2. Discovery: Following the filing of the petition, the responding attorney is entitled to review all non-privileged material in Disciplinary Counsel’s files related to the charges. Additionally, the attorney may request discovery from witnesses through depositions or subpoenas for relevant documents. However, the right to discovery is not automatic. Lawyers must submit written motions demonstrating a compelling need for additional discovery that is crucial to the defense and not unduly burdensome on other parties.

  3. Hearing Committee Proceedings: Unlike confidential “peer review meetings” in other jurisdictions, Hearing Committee proceedings in Washington, D.C. are open to the public. This adversarial trial takes place before a three-member panel consisting of two attorneys (including a chairperson) and a layperson. Each side presents witnesses, introduces documents, and may object to the other side’s evidence. While the chairperson may refer to rules of evidence for guidance, they are not strictly binding in this hearing. Relevant, non-privileged, and non-cumulative evidence is admitted, with the weight and significance determined by the Hearing Committee.

Within 120 days of concluding the hearing, the Committee must submit its findings and recommendations, along with a record of proceedings, a hearing transcript, and any briefs filed by the parties, to the Board on Professional Responsibility.

  1. Proceedings Before the Board on Professional Responsibility: Upon receiving the Committee’s report, either party can file exceptions to the findings and recommendations. If no exceptions are filed, the Board will decide the case based on the Committee’s record. However, if exceptions are filed, the Board reviews the briefs and may hold oral arguments. Subsequently, the Board can adopt the Committee’s recommendation, modify it, remand the case for further proceedings, direct Disciplinary Counsel to issue an informal admonition, or dismiss the petition. Unless the petition is dismissed or remanded, the Board prepares its own report of findings and recommendations to be presented to the D.C. Court of Appeals.

  2. D.C. Court of Appeals Proceedings: After the Board releases its report, the parties have a limited time of 20 days to file exceptions with the D.C. Court of Appeals. Failure to do so results in the Court adopting the Board’s recommendation and issuing an order accordingly.

When ruling on exceptions, the Court gives significant deference to the Board’s findings and recommendations. It accepts the Board’s factual findings unless unsupported by substantial evidence. The Court may suspend an attorney pending final decision, especially if the Board recommends disbarment or suspension. To avoid such suspension, the attorney must demonstrate a substantial likelihood of success on their exceptions to the Board’s report.

Ultimately, the D.C. Court of Appeals may issue a variety of outcomes, including disbarment, indefinite or temporary suspension, censure, placing an incapacitated attorney on inactive status, dismissal of the case, or remanding it for further proceedings.

Understanding the formal disciplinary proceedings in Washington, D.C. empowers attorneys to navigate the process effectively while upholding professional integrity and ensuring fair outcomes.

Best & Worst Case Possibilities

Grievances: Complaints against attorneys may be dismissed if they lack merit, either in the initial stages or at later stages by the Board on Professional Responsibility or the Court of Appeals, if they fail to establish incapacity or professional misconduct.

Diversion: Attorneys may enter into written agreements with Disciplinary Counsel to rectify issues, provided there is no willful or dishonest conduct. These diversion agreements specify required remedial actions, and upon compliance, Disciplinary Counsel closes the case without formal charges.

Informal Admonition: Disciplinary Counsel, with the approval of a Board Hearing Committee member, may issue an informal rebuke to the attorney through a letter addressing the misconduct. Although considered the lightest sanction, it becomes a matter of public record and may follow the attorney’s career. Private admonitions or reprimands are not provided for, and refusal to accept an admonition leads to formal charges.

Board Reprimand: If the Board determines that the attorney’s misconduct warrants a reprimand, they may recommend and publicly reprimand the attorney, unless the attorney challenges it in the Court of Appeals.

Censure: The Court of Appeals may censure the attorney for professional misconduct that does not warrant suspension or disbarment. A censure is considered more serious than an informal admonition or reprimand but does not prevent the attorney from practicing law.

Suspension: The Board or Court of Appeals may suspend an attorney’s privilege to practice law, either for a specified period or indefinitely, depending on the severity of the misconduct. The suspension prohibits the attorney from practicing law and can have significant consequences for the law firm.

Disbarment: Disbarment is the most severe penalty, reserved for the gravest instances of professional misconduct. Common reasons for disbarment include misappropriation of client funds, convictions for fraud or major crimes, and repeated willful misconduct that reflects negatively on an attorney’s honesty, competence, and fitness to practice law.

Reinstatement: While not applicable to everyone, successful petitioners for reinstatement can resume the practice of law. Reinstatement requires proving the necessary character, fitness, competency, and learning in law, as well as demonstrating that resuming the practice will not harm the public or the profession.