Although many of you may be aware that someone may file an ethics complaint regarding a member of the Division, most of you are probably not familiar with the procedures for handling such a complaint.Some people may hesitate to file a complaint against a member because they don’t understand these procedures. I have summarized the complaint procedures in this article. However, anyone desiring to file a complaint should review the Division Bylaws for the complete procedures.
Each person who applies for membership in the Division agrees to be bound by the Code of Ethics and the disciplinary procedures. However, a claim does not justify the imposition of discipline. Proof of the misconduct must be shown.
A member may be expelled from, or an application for membership or reinstatement may be rejected, for the following reasons:
a. Proof of a conviction of a felony involving moral turpitude.
b. Revocation from or suspension of a license or permit to practice or engage in a profession or occupation.
c. Expulsion from or suspension of membership in a law-related professional association.
d. Proof of conviction of a misdemeanor involving theft, embezzlement, or fraudulent misappropriation of money or other property.
e. Incurring a permanent injunctive decree or a judgment granted in favor of the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee of the Texas Supreme Court.
f. Willful misrepresentation of a material fact upon the application for membership of any member.
Complaints may also be filed alleging professional misconduct, which includes the reasons listed above, and violation of any Canon contained in the Code.
All complaints must be in writing and include all pertinent information to allow investigation of the complaint. Complaints may be made by any person, agency or entity. Complaints are forwarded to the Executive Director who then forwards it to the chair of the Ethics Committee. If the complaint is regarding someone who is not a member of the Division, the complainant is notified that the Division does not have jurisdiction.
After a complaint regarding a Division member is received, a committee of three is appointed by the Ethics chair to investigate the complaint. The committee members must be members of the Division with their principal places of business within the same District as the person against whom the complaint was filed. The committee’s investigation will include the following:
a. interviewing the complainant to obtain details of the allegation and to obtain the names and addresses of persons with knowledge or relevant facts;
b. interviewing the legal assistant to obtain details and the names and addresses of persons with knowledge of relevant facts and to notify the legal assistant that it may be necessary to interview the attorney that verified the legal assistant’s application or renewal; and
c. interviewing everyone identified by the complainant and the legal assistant.
Within ninety (90) days of the receipt of the complaint, a hearing must be held, presided over by the committee chair. The legal assistant must be notified of the hearing date at least thirty (30) days before the hearing and has twenty (20) days to respond in writing to the allegations. The hearing date may be extended for no more than thirty (30) days. During the hearing, any party may present witnesses to testify and present evidence relevant to the allegations. All those testifying will be sworn to tell the truth and each witness shall be heard privately. The legal assistant has the right to be present during the testimony. The hearing must be electronically recorded and immediately transcribed.
Within ten (10) days of the hearing, the committee must vote on whether it has determined there has been professional misconduct. If the committee determines there has been professional misconduct, the committee must also recommend specific disciplinary sanctions. There are also procedures in place for an appeal by the legal assistant.
Once the determination by the ethics committee is final, the board meets to consider any disciplinary action. The legal assistant is notified in advance of the meeting and is permitted to appear before the board to present evidence or testimony. The board then votes on the appropriate disciplinary action to be taken. The types of sanctions are as follows:
a. private reprimand by the board;
b. public reprimand announced publicly in the board meeting and published in the TPJ; and
c. suspension or expulsion of membership which is announced publicly in the board meeting and published in the TPJ, with notification to the attorney who verified the legal assistant’s application or renewal.
Although the Division is a voluntary organization and only has jurisdiction over its members, it is important to continue to raise the standards of our profession by increasing our personal ethical standards, as well as to police the actions of our fellow legal assistants.
Ellen Lockwood, CLAS, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Legal Assistants Division, a position she has held since 1997. She is Treasurer of LAD and a past president of the Alamo Area Professional Legal Assistants in San Antonio.