Avoiding the State Bar Discipline System: A Workshop
“We see a lot of good people do bad things,” said Kristin Ritsema, who appeared at TJSL on Friday, March 15, for an MCLE presentation by TJSL’s Center for Solo Practitioners called “Avoiding the State Bar Discipline System.”
Who better to explain it than Ritsema? She is the Supervising Senior Trial Counsel of the state bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel. She tries attorney disciplinary cases in the State Bar Court, but as she said, their “favorite thing is to not have to prosecute.”
Disciplinary violation outcomes range from disbarment to suspension to merely a letter of warning. Some attorneys even have to attend “ethics school.”
According to Ritsema, the best way to avoid the bar’s discipline system is to “know what your ethical obligations are.” She listed several sources and said the California Rules of Professional Conduct are required reading for all attorneys. “If you know the rules, you’re not likely to violate them,” Ritsema said.”
Ritsema also said the State Bar Act of the Business and Professions Code ( B&P Code §§, et. Seq.) is important, as is keeping up with case law from both the California Supreme Court and the State Bar Court Review of Department cases.
Two of the most common disciplinary violations, according to Ritsema, are failure to keep your client advised of significant developments and failure to respond to your client’s inquiries on the status of their case: there is a duty to keep the client informed under the Business and Professions Code. (B&P Code § 6068 (m) ) One way to avoid that problem is to “shoot a copy to the client of all the correspondence you write and motions you file.”
Another violation Ritsema cited is failure to act with competence. One example she gave is a client who walks into your new solo practice office with a huge potential class-action suit. She said you have to ask yourself, “Do I have the competence and the resources to handle this case.” She says one option you have is to associate yourself with a large firm to handle the case, because "that way you stay involved.”
Another rule that is often broken is what Ritsema called The Golden Rule – “The case file belongs to the client. If you take nothing else away from this presentation today, that is the most important thing. You can’t hold the client’s file hostage – even if they haven’t paid you.”
Ritsema also went over the rules of handling Client Trust Accounts. Co-mingling funds and misappropriation of funds are two of the most common CTA violations.
“Mistakes happen, but is it willful misconduct?” Ritsema said, in explaining one of the most important questions she and her colleagues ask whenever a potential case is referred to them.
See Kristin Ritsema's PowerPoint Presentation
"We are fortunate to have access to an experienced attorney from the state bar give us insight about how her agency vies for and handles complaints against attorneys," said TJSL Professor Luz Herrera, who founded the Center for Solo Practitioners. "Our students, alumni and staff who attended were equipped with practical information they can use throughout their career."
“The MCLE offered concrete, practical guidance regarding what pitfalls to avoid that could get you in trouble with the State Bar Discipline System. It's one thing to refer you to the rules of professional conduct,” said attorney Alara Chilton, who practices criminal defense and consumer litigation. “It's quite another to inform you of how the discipline system works, what you can do if someone files a complaint, and the procedures you can implement to help comply with your ethical obligations. I am most grateful to TJSL and its Center for Solo Practitioners for putting on this terrific program.”
After the discipline workshop, the Center for Solo Practitioners held an intensive training for its New Solos on how to handle client trust accounts. This is an area of law that is often confusing and difficult for lawyers. According to Professor Herrera, "Ms. Ritsema helped us better understand the resources the bar provides to help lawyers navigate this critical part of their practice."