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Universal Service In VSB Discipline Is Proposed

Universal Service In VSB Discipline Is Proposed

Dear Editor:

Today you received that dreaded envelope from the Virginia State Bar signifying your receipt of one of the 3,500 complaints filed each year against Virginia attorneys. Chances are you expect the case to be handled in an expeditious and competent manner. If so, you may be in for the surprise of your life.

I’ve practiced law quietly in Staunton for 28 years, and hate to be on the cutting edge of this sensitive issue. However, silence begets abuse, so here goes.

It can take 15 months from the filing of a complaint for district committees to render even a preliminary opinion. Delays of this magnitude are grossly unfair to the public and violate the due process of our members.

Dispositions are inconsistent. According to the VSB’s recent study, the larger the law firm, the less chance of sanctions. Remarkably, among firms of more than 12 members, every single complaint was dismissed.

Therefore, at least to some extent, the system is being administered by individuals who themselves are virtually immune to complaints. Indeed, should a large-firm corporate lawyer sit in judgment of the domestic relations lawyer who is being hammered by an emotionally distraught client?

In my opinion, the root of the problem is that the disciplinary process is in the hands of too few people. If we’re honest with ourselves, most attorneys are afraid even to think about VSB complaints, much less be part of the disciplinary system. In short, we’ve traded fairness for the illusion of confidentiality.

My proposal is to make it mandatory for every member of the VSB (with over 10 years’ experience) to serve in the disciplinary system. District-wide lists would be compiled, and attorneys would be categorized by specialty. For example, if a Roanoke attorney received a complaint from a divorce client, that complaint would be assigned to attorneys in another part of the district who also specialize in domestic relations. The next case would be assigned to the next attorneys on the list, etc.

Obviously, this proposal would require a commitment of both time and money. However, the alternative is to continue with standing committees which, in effect, are standing juries. The concept of standing juries was repulsive to the framers of our Constitution, and should be no less so when our professional reputations are at stake.

Henry P. Dickerson III


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