The professional licensing attorneys at Kevin Cauley, P.C. represent lawyers in investigations and disciplinary proceedings before the State Bar of California. In addition, we counsel law students and other applicants seeking admission to the Bar.
The State Bar of California's disciplinary process is extensive. Their investigatory powers are wide and deep. In addition, the State Bar has a wide latitude of discretion with regard to prosecuting and resolving cases. Legal counsel with experience representing attorneys before the State Bar can guide you through the investigation and disciplinary processes, assist you with responding to inquires, objectively advocate on your behalf, and protect your law license to the fullest extent possible.
The California State Bar's disciplinary process usually begins with a complaint lodged by a client; however anyone can file a claim against an attorney with the Bar. Upon receiving a complaint, the Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) conducts an initial review of the complaint (also called an “Inquiry”). If the OCTC determines an ethical violation may have occurred, a non-attorney State Bar complaint analyst (under the supervision of a State Bar attorney) from the Enforcement Unit of OCTC contacts the attorney named in the complaint for a written response.
By law, attorneys are required to cooperate with a State Bar investigation. However, attorneys still reserve attorney-client privilege, and may invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, if criminal charges are involved.
If there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate a serious ethical violation, the State Bar may issue a warning to the attorney, or issue an Agreement in Lieu of Discipline where the attorney must take corrective action, but is not formally disciplined.
If the OCTC's findings indicate a serious ethical violation may have occurred, a full investigation will be initiated (known as a State Bar Investigation, or SBI). During an SBI, the Enforcement Unit may subpoena court documents, bank records, and any other relevant documents. Additionally, they interview witnesses and review depositions.
The OCTC has prosecutorial discretion. Prior to filing formal charges against an attorney, the State Bar attorney assigned to the case will send a written notice of intent to file charges (commonly called the “20 day” letter). The letter requests that the respondent attorney meet with the State Bar attorney within 20 days to try to resolve the issue. If an agreement cannot be reached, the State Bar may ask the State Bar Court to hold an Early Neutral Evaluation Conference (ENEC) as another attempt to resolve the matter before a formal hearing.
If the matter is not resolved at the ENEC, the State Bar will file a Notice of Discipline Charges (NDC). This is the first step in the formal disciplinary proceedings. The NDC will be served on the address on file with the State Bar, or sent by certified mail. Attorneys must respond to the NDC within 20 days.
After an NDC is filed, the next step in the disciplinary process is a hearing in the independent State Bar Court. The State Bar Court handles issues involving discipline, admissions, probation revocation, and disbarment of California attorneys. At the State Bar Court hearing, testimony and documents will be presented to a State Bar Judge. The judge will issue a decision within 90 days and will dismiss the case, issue a public or private reproval, or recommend suspension or disbarment.
The hearing judge's decision may be appealed, within 30 days, to the State Bar Court's Review Department by the State Bar's prosecutor OR the responding attorney. A panel of three State Bar appointed attorneys will review the hearing judge's decision and can accept the decision or change it.
A responding attorney's last avenue for appeal is the Supreme Court of California. However, the Supreme Court rarely hears cases from the State Bar Court and when they do choose to review a State Bar case they usually recommend suspension or disbarment.
Attorneys have the right to counsel at all stages of the State Bar of California's disciplinary process. If contacted by an investigator or analyst from the California State Bar, you should seek legal representation immediately. Early intervention by an attorney with experience defending attorneys is crucial to the successful resolution of an investigation or proposed disciplinary action.