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The arm of the D.C. Bar that investigates complaints against lawyers says it is in desperate need of more staff and office space to relieve a growing backlog of misconduct cases. The Board on Professional Responsibility, which is funded through annual dues paid by the D.C. Bar’s 78,000 members, submitted a four-page memo to the Bar’s board of governors at a June 17 meeting. The memo calls for a substantial budget increase — money that would be used to hire more lawyers to investigate complaints as well as more staffers to support the volunteer network that conducts hearings. The Bar voted to increase the cap on annual dues — currently at $155 — by $40 over the course of the next five years. The D.C. Bar’s discussion last week on raising the dues ceiling sparked the funding debate. Disciplinary officials, who say they need to hire 17 more people, are concerned that the current proposed dues hike won’t go far enough. “We need staff and space, and we need it now,” says Joanne Doddy Fort, chairwoman of the Board on Professional Responsibility (BPR), made up of seven lawyers and two members of the public appointed by the D.C. Court of Appeals, which oversees the disciplinary system and has the last say on funding matters. George Jones, a partner at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood who is president of the D.C. Bar’s board of governors, suggested at last week’s meeting that a committee be formed to study the system before the Bar rubber-stamps any large funding increases. Disciplinary cases against D.C. lawyers move through a multistep process. The bar counsel probes complaints and passes some on to the next step: hearing committees made up of volunteer lawyers and members of the public. Hearing committees then submit recommendations to the full BPR, which makes decisions on punishment. If the board recommends disbarment, public censure, or suspension, the cases move on to the appeals court, which makes a final ruling. In 2002, 1,393 complaints went to the disciplinary board’s Office of Bar Counsel. Of these, 575 were investigated further by one of nine assistant bar counsel. The BPR, which Fort says hears between 80 and 100 cases a year, decided 82 of those cases last year. Currently, there is a backlog of about 274 cases that are more than 90 days old, says Deputy Bar Counsel Wallace Shipp. Shipp estimates that each lawyer in the bar counsel’s office can handle 50 cases a year. At that rate, only 450 cases of the close to 600 that go to bar counsel annually can be completed on time. Shipp says another four lawyers could help clear the backlog. More support staff is needed at the BPR level as well, to allow the hearing committees to process the increase in cases pushed through by the bar counsel, officials say. The BPR side of the disciplinary process now relies on 62 volunteers and six full-time paid staff members — two lawyers, two law clerks, one case manager, and one legal secretary. According to D.C. Bar Rule XI, which governs disciplinary proceedings, hearing committees have 60 days to produce a report after a hearing. However, Fort says, “it is rare for any report to be issued within a 60-day period.” Suzanne Mishkin, associate counsel for the D.C.-based legal reform group HALT, worries that the backlog allows bad or crooked lawyers to take advantage of the public. “The longer these cases take, the more clients are being victimized,” Mishkin says. HALT, which issued report cards on legal disciplinary systems in the United States last year, gave the District a C grade overall, with an incomplete for promptness. BPR Chairwoman Fort, a D.C.-based solo practitioner, says the volunteers and staffers “are just overloaded at the moment.” Space for staff is so limited that some of the lawyers in the bar counsel’s office have been working in the hallways of the D.C. Court of Appeals, which makes it difficult for them to interview witnesses and handle confidential documents, Fort says. “We just simply cannot process the cases as fast as we like with these arrangements,” she notes. Bar Counsel Joyce Peters says the disciplinary system needs more staff to process these claims faster. “We have a steady flow of cases that come in, and many cases we don’t seem to get to,” she says. Katherine Mazzaferri, executive director of the D.C. Bar, says the Bar has never turned down a request for more staff at the BPR. She says it is not clear if a lack of money and staff is the disciplinary system’s biggest problem. “It’s time to take a look at how we do discipline,” she says. But, according to Fort, the portion of dues revenue that goes to the disciplinary system is on the decline — from 39.8 percent in 1999 to 34.8 percent for the 2003-04 fiscal year. The BPR’s dues allocation for the 2003-04 fiscal year is about $3.9 million, of which $3.2 million will pay staff salaries and benefits. About $54 from each D.C. Bar member’s $155 in dues will go to the BPR in the next fiscal year. The D.C. Bar is third in overall membership in the nation, but ranks 47th in dues. And raising dues in the District is not an easy proposition. In 1980, Bar members voted to limit the use of dues to membership, the client security fund, discipline, and member communication. “Members over the years have been very sensitive to changes in the dues and the dues ceiling,” Mazzaferri says. Jones, the president of the Bar’s board of governors, says the BPR provided the board no evidence to support the need for a large staff increase. “They just gave us a bunch of numbers,” he says. Jones says he believes the new dues ceiling is sufficient to fund the staffing increases the BPR called for last week. Whether the BPR gets the money or not is a different question, he says. The study Jones proposed would likely include a review of Rule XI, with an eye toward making the system more efficient, according to Mazzaferri. For instance, the lengthy process cases follow can be bypassed only if a lawyer agrees to be disbarred or is being informally reprimanded. There are no plea bargaining provisions. Making it easier to settle cases, says Bar Counsel Peters, would “let the hearing committees and the board focus on the most serious cases.”

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