Professional Regulation

FAQs for Lawyers Who Receive A Bar Complaint

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Does the fact that I received a bar complaint mean that the VSB is accusing me of ethical misconduct?

No. The VSB does an initial review of all bar complaints received and will ask a lawyer to respond to a bar complaint only if the complainant has stated facts that, if true, would constitute a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct. The bar has not made a judgment as to whether there is any misconduct at this stage. Any determination of misconduct follows a more detailed investigation and rests in the hands of the volunteers who serve on the local disciplinary district committees.

Why doesn't the bar complaint allege specific Rules of Professional Conduct at issue?

The VSB sends lawyers a copy of the bar complaint as received. Because the VSB performs no substantive investigation before sending the complaint to the attorney for response, it would not be appropriate at this stage for the VSB to attempt to qualify the bar complaint’s allegations.

Do I have to respond to the bar complaint?

You should respond to the bar complaint. Failing to respond may violate Rule 8.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which requires lawyers to cooperate with disciplinary investigations and proceedings. The VSB takes the position that sending a bar complaint to a lawyer for response constitutes a lawful demand for information in a disciplinary proceeding.

How long do I have to respond to a bar complaint?

With an informal investigation conducted by the intake counsel, the lawyer will receive a demand letter requiring a response by a specific date. Usually, this date is 10-14 days from the date of the bar’s notification letter to the lawyer. If the complaint becomes a formal investigation, the lawyer has 21 days to respond to the bar. If there is a hardship in responding within that time frame, you may call the bar counsel who sent you the complaint and ask for a short extension of time to respond. Counsel routinely grants reasonable requests for extensions.

Who will see my response to the bar complaint?

The VSB may send your response to the bar complaint to the complainant for rebuttal. Should the VSB file disciplinary charges arising from the bar complaint, your response may be admitted into evidence at a public disciplinary hearing.

What should I submit in response to a bar complaint?

You may submit a letter explaining your version of events. You may also provide copies of documents that support your position. DO NOT send original documents to the Virginia State Bar. All documents will be destroyed in keeping with the bar’s records and destruction policies.

What about client confidentiality?

Under Rule 1.6 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, you must honor client confidentiality. You may, however, provide confidential information as necessary to defend yourself against the allegations made in the bar complaint. If the complainant is not your client, you should seek the client’s consent before providing confidential information, as your response to the bar complaint may be sent to the complainant for response. If you cannot reach your client and the information is essential to defending yourself, you may submit only what is reasonably necessary to respond to the bar complaint, and you may ask bar counsel not to share the confidential information with the complainant or other parties outside of the disciplinary system.

Are there any other requirements for responding to a bar complaint?

Yes. You must sign your response to the bar complaint.

May I be represented by counsel?

Yes, you may hire counsel to respond to the bar complaint. You must, however, sign your response to the bar complaint.

May the Ethics Hotline help me with responding to the bar complaint?

No. Once a bar complaint is pending, it would be a conflict of interest for the VSB ethics counsel to provide advice regarding the bar complaint. Ethics counsel may, however, continue to advise you on ethical issues unrelated to the issues presented in the bar complaint.

When will I hear back from the VSB?

Once bar counsel has reviewed your response to the bar complaint and the complainant’s rebuttal, if any, you will be notified in writing whether the complaint will be dismissed or referred to a district committee for further investigation. The VSB's goal is to complete all preliminary investigations within 75 days. Sometimes the process may take longer, such as when the lawyer or the complainant has received an extension of time to file a response.

If the complaint is dismissed, does the dismissal go on my disciplinary record?

No. A disciplinary record, as defined by the Rules of Court, consists only of sanctions imposed.

What happens if the complaint is referred to a district committee for investigation?

Typically, an investigator employed by the VSB will be assigned to the case to interview witnesses and collect documents. You may be interviewed as part of this process. The investigation is confidential. The investigator will prepare a report of investigation that will be considered by a three-member subcommittee of the district committee. Subcommittee meetings are confidential. The subcommittee will vote whether to dismiss the complaint or file charges of misconduct. If ethical violations are charged, a public hearing will be set before the district committee or the Disciplinary Board. Subcommittees may also impose minor discipline or approve agreed dispositions for private or public discipline. Complainant’s and respondent’s lawyers are advised in writing of all subcommittee decisions.
Updated: Jan 17, 2019