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Attorney Discipline

What rules govern lawyer conduct in Iowa?

Every lawyer practicing in our state must adhere to ethical rules adopted by the Iowa Supreme Court. Those rules are strict. Fortunately for Iowans, must lawyers are reputable and hard-working. Most lawyers value their good reputations and want to provide excellent legal services to their clients. Lawyers are also “officers of the Court,” required to be honest, forthright, and protective of the integrity of the legal process.

Under what circumstances might disciplinary sanctions be imposed?

Every lawyer promises to uphold the law and to comply with the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct. Lawyers who fail to do so are subject to professional discipline. However, lawyers are human. Sometimes, a lawyer makes a mistake. If that mistake causes a loss to the client, the client may be able to recover the loss from the lawyer in a court of law. However, an isolated mistake or error in judgment is usually not unethical conduct.

Lawyer discipline must be considered very carefully, because a disciplinary sanction may drastically affect the lawyer’s career, reputation, and ability to earn a living. For that reason, it takes more than a claim of ethical misconduct to justify a disciplinary sanction. The Board (and, if public discipline is sought, the Supreme Court) will require evidence – proof of unethical conduct – to justify disciplining a lawyer, just like a court would require proof of wrongdoing by any member of society before imposing a punishment.

Procedures

All investigations must be initiated through a written complaint to the Board. The Supreme Court of Iowa has approved a form that must accompany all complaints of ethical misconduct against Iowa attorneys. This form allows the Board to ensure that all pertinent contact information is received and that the complaining party (“complainant”) has waived applicable attorney-client confidentiality protections.

Any person with knowledge of the relevant facts may file a complaint. The Board receives complaints from clients, members of the public, other attorneys, and judges. The Board also receives and investigates self-reports of misconduct by attorneys who fall within its jurisdiction.

There is no fee to file a written complaint. Upon receipt of the complaint, the Board will assign the matter a case number and the attorney (“respondent”) will be notified and given an opportunity to respond to the allegations of ethical misconduct.

Attorneys are required to respond to ethical complaints. Failure to respond may result in a suspension of the attorney’s license to practice law. After the attorney has responded, the matter is assigned to a Board investigator, who will review the complaint and the response and conduct further investigation into the alleged misconduct. Investigators often review court files, communicate with judges or other attorneys, interview witnesses (including, frequently, the complainant), and gather pertinent documentation. The investigative process may take several months.

After investigation, the Board will consider the matter as part of its regular case-processing business (which includes weekly mailings and quarterly in-person meetings). If the Board decides that no further action is warranted, the matter will be dismissed and the complainant will be informed of the reasons for the Board’s decision. If the Board decides that a private admonition or public discipline is appropriate, further procedural requirements may delay notification of the complainant of the final disposition of the case. However, once the matter is completely resolved, every complainant will be informed. If public discipline is imposed, the complainant will receive a copy of the Supreme Court’s order imposing the sanction.

May a complainant withdraw a complaint after it has been submitted?

Because the Board is focused on the protection of the public, complainants may not simply “drop” their complaint after it has been initiated. Similarly, it is improper for a lawyer to enter into an agreement with a complainant that would require the complainant to withdraw the complaint or refuse to cooperate with the Board’s investigation.

Does the Attorney Disciplinary Board represent the complainant?

No. The Board does not represent complainants individually. Complainants must protect their own legal rights. The Board cannot sue a lawyer on behalf of a complainant or obtain a personal remedy for a complainant. Similarly, the Board cannot provide legal advice to a complainant. The Board encourages every complainant to consult with an attorney about how to protect the complainant’s legal rights.

Is the complaint and investigation process public?

No. The entire process is kept confidential until public discipline is recommended by a hearing panel of the Grievance Commission or imposed by the Supreme Court. Dismissed complaints and private admonitions remain confidential even after resolution.

May a lawyer or complainant request an ethics advisory opinion from the Board?

The Board is precluded by Court rule from giving ethics advisory opinions. The Board’s role in the disciplinary process is to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute ethical misconduct. The Board is not an impartial ethics panel. Lawyers may request ethics opinions from the standing ethics committee of the Iowa State Bar Association. Nonlawyers should consult with an attorney if they wish to obtain an opinion about whether malpractice or ethical violations have taken place.

What matters are not investigated by the Board?

The Board does not investigate possible violations of constitutional rights, errors in judgment, isolated mistakes by lawyers, disputes about fees, rude behavior, or adverse legal outcomes that do not include possible ethical misconduct. The Board does not address claims of ineffective assistance of defense counsel in criminal matters. Those claims should be presented to the Courts of Iowa, which are the proper forums to handle such issues.

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