Don't Wait to Pursue Other Relief
You should not wait until the North Carolina State Bar Grievance Committee resolves your grievance before exploring other possible remedies if you believe that you have been harmed by a lawyer. You can lose valuable rights if you delay. If you want to find out if you have other claims against the lawyer, you should contact a lawyer of your choice. Bar counsel cannot give you legal advice or tell you what to do.
How to File a Complaint
What Should the Complaint Say?
What Happens Next?
Will My Complaint be Made Public?
What Does the Grievance Committee Do?
How Long Will It Take to Resolve My Complaint?
What If I Want to Withdraw My Complaint?
What Action Can the North Carolina State Bar Grievance Committee Take?
What If I Disagree with the Decision in the Case?
What Is the Disciplinary Hearing Commission?
Once you have decided that you want to file a complaint with the North Carolina State Bar, it is easy to get started. Just fill out a State Bar complaint form or send us a letter describing the problem. You can get a complaint form by clicking here or by calling our office at 919-828-4620. We can also send you a brochure describing the grievance process.
Be sure to tell us who you are complaining about and what the respondent did that you think is wrong. Include your name and contact information. You don't need to research legal issues or try to figure out what ethical rule the respondent may have violated.
Here are some other tips to keep in mind:
Be specific. It is more helpful to say “my lawyer didn't tell me when my court date was” than “my lawyer violated my rights.”
Include documents or evidence that explain or support your complaint, but do not send your only copy of valuable items. The NC State Bar must charge for making copies.
Be complete. Your complaint should describe all of your problems with the lawyer. The NC State Bar will have an investigator contact you if we have questions about your complaint, but interviews are not automatically conducted in every case. Let us know if there is some reason you can't include all of your concerns in your initial complaint.
Identify witnesses and give their contact information. If possible, outline what you think the witnesses will say.
After the North Carolina State Bar receives your complaint, you will get an acknowledgement letter with the name of the bar counsel (a NC State Bar staff lawyer) and the file number assigned to your case. A complaint will not be investigated if all of the facts, even if true, don't violate the Rules of Professional Conduct.
If an investigation is needed, the respondent will usually be asked to respond in writing to your complaint. The respondent has 15 days to respond, but can ask for more time. The State Bar's investigators may also talk to witnesses and gather evidence. If you want to see a copy of the respondent's response to your complaint, contact our office and, in most cases, we can share the information with you.
Sometimes the State Bar refers complaints against lawyers to a local grievance committee in one of 13 judicial districts across the state. These local grievance committees help the State Bar interview witnesses and gather documents.
When the investigation is complete, a State Bar lawyer will review the information gathered in the investigation and make a recommendation about what should happen in the case. Then, your complaint, the respondent's response, and the results of the State Bar's investigation go to the Grievance Committee for its review.
Complaints are not made public unless and until the Grievance Committee decides that a case against the respondent lawyer should be filed with the Disciplinary Hearing Commission (see below). However, the respondent lawyer will know about your complaint because he or she will be asked to respond.
The decision in your case will be made by members of the State Bar's Grievance Committee. The committee includes lawyer-volunteers from across the state and some non-lawyers. The committee members' job is to review your complaint, the lawyer's response, and the results of the investigation and decide if there is enough evidence to prove that the lawyer did something unethical.
Some cases can be decided in a few weeks, but others may take months. The length of time it takes to complete your case depends upon how complicated the issues are, the number of witnesses involved, and the kind of evidence the State Bar has to gather. If you want to know what is happening with your complaint, you can call the State Bar lawyer assigned to your case.
Once you file a complaint against a lawyer, you cannot withdraw it. The North Carolina State Bar has a duty to the public to complete its investigation. However, if you let your State Bar lawyer know that you want to withdraw your complaint and why, the Grievance Committee will consider that when making a decision about your case.
There are a number of actions that the Grievance Committee can take, depending upon the facts of your case. It can dismiss the case, issue a letter of caution or a letter of warning, or impose an admonition, reprimand, or a censure (see Definitions for explanations of these actions). In the most serious cases, the Grievance Committee may refer the case for trial before the Disciplinary Hearing Commission. When a decision is made in your case, you will be notified in writing.
The State Bar must review every complaint to decide if it can prove that the lawyer violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. Sometimes, there just isn't enough evidence to discipline the respondent. In other cases, the lawyer may have done something that a client did not like—failing to answer telephone calls is a good example—but that doesn't necessarily make the conduct unethical. If you disagree with or don't understand the Grievance Committee's decision in your case, you have the right to ask bar counsel assigned to the case to explain.
The Disciplinary Hearing Commission ( DHC ) acts as the North Carolina State Bar's trial court. It is composed of 12 lawyers and 8 public members, who sit in panels of three to hear complaints of lawyer misconduct referred to it by the Grievance Committee. The DHC can also hear reinstatement petitions from disbarred lawyers and claims that a lawyer is disabled. All hearings before the DHC are open to the public. You can get a copy of the commission's trial schedule from the NC State Bar's website or by calling our office (919.828.4620). If your complaint is referred to the DHC for trial, bar counsel handling the case will let you know and will tell you if you will need to testify at the trial.
In a trial before a panel of the DHC , the burden of proving the respondent lawyer violated a Rule of Professional Conduct is on the NC State Bar. The NC State Bar must show this by clear, cogent and convincing evidence. The trial occurs in two phases. In the first phase, the DHC panel hears evidence and then decides whether the charges of misconduct against the respondent have been established.
If misconduct is found by the DHC panel, the second, or disciplinary phase of the trial, takes place. In this phase, the DHC panel considers evidence and decides what is the appropriate discipline to be imposed for the misconduct. Depending on what the evidence shows, the DHC can dismiss the complaint or issue a letter of caution, letter of warning, admonition, reprimand, or censure (see Definitions for explanations of these actions). It can also suspend the lawyer's license or disbar the lawyer. If the lawyer's license is suspended, the commission can “stay” or halt all or part of the suspension on various conditions, which creates a kind of probationary sentence.
Q: Do I have to reveal my name on my grievance form?
Yes. The lawyer has the right to know who is complaining about him or her and to see a copy of your complaint. Without that information, the lawyer may not be able to respond completely to your complaint.
Q: Can the lawyer sue me for filing a grievance?
Individuals who file complaints in good faith against a North Carolina lawyer are protected by statute from retaliation.
Q; Do I need a lawyer to help me file a grievance?
No. All you have to do is tell us what the lawyer did that you think was improper. Bar counsel will conduct the investigation and any legal research that may be necessary.
Q: Can I attend the Grievance Committee's meetings?
No. The Grievance Committee decides complaints against lawyers based on the written complaint, the respondent's response, and the results of the NC State Bar staff's investigation. The committee does not hear live testimony and its meetings are not open to the public, including the complaining party and the respondent.
Q: Who is on the Grievance Committee and how are the members selected?
The Grievance Committee is made up of approximately 36 members. Most of its members are lawyers who have been elected to serve on the committee by the lawyers in their judicial districts across the state. The committee also includes non-lawyer public members who are appointed to their positions by the leadership of the NC State Bar.
Q: Where can I get a copy of the Rules of Professional Conduct?
The Rules of Professional Conduct are contained in the Rules Volume of the North Carolina General Statutes. These can be found in the reference section of your local public library and on the NC State Bar's website. You can obtain a copy of the NC Lawyers' Handbook, which includes the Rules, ethics opinions, and the NC State Bar's procedural rules, at a small charge, from the NC State Bar's office by e-mailing Martha Fletcher.
Q: Can a disbarred lawyer ever get his/her license back?
A disbarred North Carolina lawyer must wait at least five years to ask for his/her license back. The disbarred lawyer must prove that s/he has reformed, that reinstatement will not harm the public, and that s/he has complied with other requirements set out in the NC State Bar's procedural rules.
Q: What actions of the Grievance Committee are public?
The complainant and respondent are always told how the Grievance Committee decides the complainant's particular case. The issuance of a reprimand or a censure is a matter of public record, but all other decisions by the committee remain private.
Q: What actions of the Disciplinary Hearing Commission are public?
All actions and decisions of the commission are public. All hearings are open to the public and a calendar of pending cases can be found on the State Bar's website or by contacting the North Carolina State Bar's office (919.828.4620). You can view an archive of past Disciplinary Actions and Disciplinary Orders on the State Bar's website.
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