A preliminary report
By Chris L. Mullmann
On Aug. 1, 2003, the Oregon State Bar Client Assistance Office opened for business. The CAO is one of the changes in the disciplinary process recommended by the Discipline System Task Force after its year-long study mandated by the House of Delegates in 2001. The Task Force recommendations were presented to and approved by the House of Delegates in October 2002. Over the subsequent months, the bar developed policies and coordinated the rule changes required to make the CAO a reality. The CAO is part of general counsel’s office, and the CAO staff reports to and is supervised by George Riemer, general counsel. There are three staff attorneys and two administrative assistants in the CAO.
The function of the CAO is two-fold. CAO staff reviews all inquiries and complaints about lawyer conduct, whether received in writing, in person or by telephone and makes an initial determination whether the inquiry raises an actual complaint of misconduct. An actual complaint of misconduct exists if there is credible evidence to support an allegation that misconduct has occurred. CAO staff conducts its review through telephone conversations with the inquirer and the lawyer, through written correspondence, or through a combination of those, as is deemed appropriate in each situation. If the CAO determines that credible evidence of misconduct exists, the inquiry is referred to disciplinary counsel’s office for further consideration. A dismissal by the CAO for lack of credible evidence may be reviewed, upon the inquirer’s request, by the general counsel, whose decision on the matter is final.
The CAO’s second function is to help resolve minor client relationship problems to the extent possible and as bar resources permit. CAO staff offers general legal information, referrals to other legal and community resources and, on occasion, attempts to resolve problems between lawyer and client that do not implicate disciplinary rules. For instance, a client may need an explanation about the role and responsibilities of the lawyer, there may be an issue over surrendering the file or there may be questions about the lawyer’s billing practices. As time and resources permit, the CAO will attempt to resolve such issues.
The experience over the first four full months of operation (August through November) shows that the central intake aspect of the CAO is dealing with more people than disciplinary counsel’s office did under the prior rules. Because it is no longer required that inquiries and complaints be submitted in writing, the CAO is accessible to a much broader range of the public than under the prior process.
Some statistics for that period are illustrative. Between August 1 and Dec. 3, 2003, the CAO received 1,136 inquiries. By comparison, disciplinary counsel’s office received 1,424 written complaints during all of 2002. Of the inquiries received by the CAO, 62 percent were disposed of on the same day they were received (typically by providing information to the inquirer); 18 percent were resolved within a week and 15 percent were resolved within a month of receipt. Credible evidence of misconduct was found in 64 of the inquiries (approximately 5 percent), which were referred to discipline counsel’s office. The remaining matters were handled by the CAO through the provision of information, referral to fee arbitration or other resources or by an explanation that the inquiry did not raise credible evidence of misconduct by the lawyer.
Other statistics are interesting as well. Consistent with disciplinary counsel’s experience over the years, the majority of inquiries involve lawyers in solo or small firm (5 or fewer lawyers) practices. As the size of the firm increases, the volume of inquires decreases. The largest number of inquiries and complaints involve criminal matters, followed closely by inquiries arising out of domestic relations cases. The CAO also tracks the 'nature' of the inquiries. By far, most people express dissatisfaction about communication (or lack thereof) with their lawyer. Other relatively large categories of inquiries involve fees (including billing, collection and liens), competence and diligence and neglect. CAO also receives a sizeable number of inquiries that indicate possible malpractice claims; those are referred to the PLF or the inquirer is advised to consult private counsel. A fair number of inquirers are seeking legal advice; they are referred to the Referral and Information Service and other resources for obtaining counsel.
Anecdotal information to date suggests that lawyers are pleased with the assistance provided by the CAO, including the relatively speedy initial review of matters that do not raise disciplinary issues. Similarly, the CAO has received many expressions of gratitude from clients and others who have inquired about lawyers and to whom the CAO has provided information or assistance.
While there is work yet to be done to refine the internal operations and processes of the CAO and to confirm that our view of credible evidence comports with that of disciplinary counsel, those of us working in and with the CAO are pleased with the results thus far. We are confident that the creation of a central intake function coupled with a program that can provide assistance to the public is a step forward for the Oregon State Bar and for the general public. Staff plans on preparing and submitting semi-annual reports on the operation of the CAO to the Board of Governors and the Oregon Supreme Court to ensure that the program is operating in an efficient and effective manner.
© 2004 Chris Mullmann
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Mullmann is the client assistance office manager and an assistant general counsel. He can be reached at (503) 620-0222, or toll-free in Oregon at (800) 452-8260, ext. 392.