We’ve all heard the bad lawyer jokes but now, thanks to the 2009
American Bar Association Survey on Lawyer Discipline Systems, there is statistical proof to substantiate the jokes. Why do lawyers
behave badly? Because they can get away with it, that’s why.
Lawyers play a critical role in the legal system yet their professional behavior is left unchecked in the US as they are largely self-regulated. State Bar Associations create ethics codes to govern
the conduct of attorneys but enforcement of such ethics codes is
statistically non-existent in the US legal system. In 2009 out of
1.4 million attorneys across the US a mere 5,502 were convicted of
ethics violations or %0.39. Of the guilty, nearly 30%, 1,596, were
from Albany, NY alone, where 7% of attorneys were found to have acted unethically.
A discipline system that punishes less than 0.5% of its
population is not a deterrent to unethical behavior nor is it
offering effective discipline of its members. Considering that many
large corporations try to shed their bottom 5% performers each year
and 3.1% of adults in the U.S are in the jail or parole it is inconceivable that only 0.39% of attorneys across the nation behave
Across the nation, enforcement and funding of discipline committees varies widely from state to state. New York spent approximately $8.3 million of legislative appropriated tax dollars to oversee 191,000 lawyers in 2009 as compared to over $52 million Bar Association assessed fees that California spent to discipline 169,000 lawyers or $11 million that New Jersey spent from Supreme Court user fees to oversee 68,000 attorneys. Unfortunately there is no correlation between the amount of money spent on attorney discipline and the effectiveness of such programs. While California outspent New York by over $41 million for attorney discipline only 350 attorneys out of 161,000 (.21%) were disciplined in California vs. 1,935 convictions in New York, which spent 16% of what California spent.
While funding models for attorney discipline vary widely between states, one thing that is clear when looking at the national statistics is that attorney’s have little to fear for unethical, non-criminal behavior in the US. A fair legal system is an underpinning of our democracy and clearly the US needs to step up its enforcement of the ethical behavior of attorneys. If there is a statistic that shows why attorney’s are so maligned in the US the fact that less than 0.5% of attorneys will face a disciplinary action in a year shows that attorneys have little to fear for unethical behavior.