In 2005 the Client Assistance Office (CAO) sent surveys to 296 people who had contact with our office and 298 lawyers who responded to inquiries from our office in writing. The questions asked of each group were not identical, as the objective was to determine what lawyers and non-lawyers thought of the new system. All contact occurred during the calendar year 2004. Some of what we learned surprised us and some of it did not. This column will share the lessons we learned from this survey and what steps CAO intends to take to make the process better.1
Sixty-seven percent of the lawyers surveyed told us that they first heard of the CAO by receiving a letter or a call from our office. Only 19 percent learned of the CAO through information in the bar Bulletin, at a CLE or on the bar’s website. CAO staff lawyers continue to work to "get the word out" to our members. Often the CAO can help get a lawyer and a frustrated client communicating again, or help resolve issues involving file materials, strategy concerns and status updates. While the CAO lawyers cannot give legal advice to members of the public, sometimes hearing something from one of our lawyers gives members of the public a higher level of confidence that what the lawyer is doing is not an ethics violation. For example, we get many complaints in the probate arena that the "estate lawyer is not communicating with me." The CAO lawyers can usually determine who the lawyer actually represents and explain to people what their options are to get the information they want.
Forty-five percent of the matters reported involved criminal law or domestic relations law. This did not particularly surprise us, as it tracks pretty closely to the statistics we keep ourselves. The lesson for practitioners is that criminal law and domestic relations law are two areas in which they can expect to get complaints. The lesson for the CAO is that we need to try and educate our members about why criminal law and domestic relations law clients complain and how to prevent complaints. Bar staff speak at many CLE events and often inform lawyers about what kind of complaints they can expect and in which area of the law they can expect them. The most common kinds of complaints about criminal law and domestic relations law lawyers involve communication and neglect. Clients expect to hear from their lawyers and for their lawyers to return calls and respond to letters. By not doing so, lawyers open themselves up for bar complaints.
Sixteen percent of the lawyers surveyed responded that dishonesty and misrepresentation was the reason for the complaint. However, 25 percent responded that the complaints were about neglect and communication. The two tend to be closely related. If a lawyer does not communicate with a client, many clients assume their matters are being neglected. We can only theorize that some lawyers are too busy to communicate often with clients, some do not see the point in communicating until there is something substantive to tell a client, and some just do not care to communicate anymore than they absolutely have to. Oregon Rule of Professional Conduct 1.3 prohibits a lawyer from neglecting a client’s legal matter2 and Oregon RPC 1.4 requires a lawyer to keep a client reasonably well informed and to comply with reasonable requests for information.3 Often the CAO cannot tell whether a lawyer has complied with the rule without asking the lawyer to explain how they have communicated or addressed a client’s needs. Responding to the CAO may be even more time-consuming than responding to clients.
Fortunately for the CAO staff, 91 percent of the lawyers surveyed strongly felt that we treated them professionally and respectfully. Only 5 percent felt otherwise and we will take steps to try harder. The CAO lawyers encourage members to call and discuss issues. While we will not advise lawyers how to respond to complaints, we will certainly explain the process and clarify the issues if necessary.
Lawyers appear mostly satisfied with how the system operates. Eighty-nine percent agreed that they were given the chance to explain their side of a matter. Eighty-nine percent agreed that the CAO staff were knowledgeable about the rules of conduct, but only 65 percent felt that we adequately explained the process and our expectations. Again, we encourage lawyers to call with questions. We will review our letters to determine whether our explanation of the process can be improved.
Eighty-two percent of the lawyers agreed that the CAO staff were helpful during telephone consultations. Eighty-six percent felt that the CAO handled their matters in a timely manner. Our goal is to resolve 90 percent of the matters we receive within 60 days of receipt. Resolution means either dismissal, referral to disciplinary counsel’s office or some solution that satisfies both the complaining party and the lawyer. We met our goal in 2004, and the lawyers surveyed confirm that.
Eighty-seven percent of lawyers surveyed told us that they were satisfied with the CAO’s handling of the matter and 79 percent would recommend our services to other lawyers. Finally, 58 percent of lawyers surveyed agreed that the CAO process is an improvement over the prior complaint process, only one percent disagreed and the rest were uncertain.
Complaining Party Responses
As expected, the responses from complaining parties were not so positive. On the positive side, word of the bar’s existence appears to be getting out through several different avenues. Ten percent learned about the bar through a friend, 9 percent through a government agency, 19 percent through the lawyer’s office, 12 percent through the Internet (possibly the bar’s website) and 7 percent through the Yellow Pages. Many people who find the bar then learn of the existence of the CAO. We want the public to be aware of the CAO. Many issues that come up are not ethics issues or do not yet rise to the level of misconduct. If the CAO can intervene early or provide resources, we feel that we have done a service. Unfortunately, we cannot please everyone, and not all problems have a solution.
Many callers first deal with a CAO intake staffer. Some callers are passed through to the CAO lawyers and most letter, e-mail and fax contacts are dealt with by a CAO lawyer. Forty-five percent of the public that responded were comfortable speaking with the CAO staff. Twelve percent were not comfortable. Other than noting that some callers start out angry or confused, we are not sure why people would be uncomfortable speaking with CAO staff. We have all been trained in how to deal with difficult, upset or confused people and continue with training. We are especially trying to get more training to deal with people with emotional problems.
Sixty-six percent of contacts agreed that the CAO staff treated them with respect and courtesy. Sixty-nine percent felt that the CAO staff responded in a timely manner. The CAO staff is routinely available to take telephone calls, and the CAO lawyers split up written complaints based on the day they are received. In most cases the CAO lawyer either calls the complaining party, or the lawyer or writes a letter to either within a day or two of receipt of a complaint.
While 52 percent of the public surveyed felt that the CAO staff was knowledgeable and provided helpful information, 29 percent did not. Our primary area of expertise is with the Oregon RPC’s and lawyer conduct. We are constantly training to learn about other services and resources such as the attorney general’s office, Social Security Administration and other agencies that provide assistance, to name a few. While we maintain an ever-changing list of resources, we are not aware of them all. For instance, we recently learned that there is an ombudsman at the Office of Long-Term Care who can assist people with complaints about care facilities.
Forty-three percent of people surveyed did not feel that the CAO staff attempted to understand their concerns, and 46 percent did not feel that we cared. We discuss these concerns internally and personally feel that we present a sympathetic attitude. While some of the negative feedback may result from disappointment with our decisions, we continue to try to be caring and understanding.
Fifty-three percent of the public were not satisfied with the services provided by the CAO, but 51 percent felt that they were given a fair opportunity to present their concerns. While we cannot please everyone, we at least strive to let everyone explain their concerns and give a clear explanation of why certain complaints do not implicate ethics concerns or what other services are available.
The CAO will continue to try and improve its services to members and the public. We welcome feedback and suggestions. For more information on our role at the bar and to read the enabling rule that gives us our authority, see the bar’s website, www.osbar.org.
1. The full results of the survey may be found at http://www.osbar.org/_docs/resources/CAO-04survey.pdf
2. Rule 1.3 Diligence
A lawyer shall not neglect a legal matter entrusted to the lawyer.
3. Rule 1.4 Communication
(a) A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information
(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.
© 2006 Scott Morrill
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Morrill is assistant general counsel for the Oregon State Bar. He can be reached at smorrill@ osbar.org.