If you’re a lawyer in Pennsylvania, your disciplinary record is a few mouse clicks away, but if you’re practicing in New Mexico, the public must endure an old-fashioned slog via the telephone to get the same data.
Similar comparisons can be found across the United States: The disciplinary records of New York attorneys are not online, while the records of Illinois attorneys are.
When it comes to lawyers’ disciplinary records, some states satisfy the public’s appetite for online information, while others are lagging far behind.
“We’re still a long distance from where we ought to be,” said Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School and founding director of the university’s Center on Ethics.
Rhode warned that, if states don’t provide more disciplinary information online, a growing number of private companies � some of which sell controversial ratings on lawyers’ performance � will take up the slack. “Ultimately, if the bar doesn’t do it voluntarily, it will be done for them,” she said.
Many states have started to put disciplinary records online in recent years, including Florida in August, Oregon earlier this year and Ohio about two years ago. But while the American Bar Association offers guidelines on informing the public about attorney discipline, states have taken varying approaches to which documents they post online and how user-friendly their sites are.
As a result, a lawyer’s mistake may be easily discoverable in one state, but very difficult to uncover in another state.
California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon and Pennsylvania are among the states that post disciplinary information online, typically through a name search. Some places, such as Illinois, also offer word searches, schedules of upcoming hearings and recent filings.
In other states, Web sites are not a priority. To find a lawyer’s disciplinary record in Manhattan and the Bronx in New York City, residents must call or examine records in person. Mississippi’s Web site only lets people know whether an attorney is suspended. New Mexico does not post disciplinary information online.
Still, more states are slowly turning to those with Web sites to get advice about posting records online, said Donald Lundberg, president of the National Organization of Bar Counsel, a nonprofit organization whose members enforce lawyers’ ethics rules. “The trend is clearly making the information more public,” he said.
But while some sites contain disciplinary information, the data can be difficult to track down because the sites are confusing and not user-friendly.
“The information is either not there or it’s very well hidden,” said Michael Frisch, ethics counsel to, and adjunct professor of law at, the Georgetown University Law Center.
In order to research a lawyer’s history, one must first find out who handles disciplinary records, as this may be done by the state bar, a section of the state’s Supreme Court or a separate agency.
Once that information is located, looking up someone’s record can also be tricky. For example, on the Massachusetts site, the public can search by name to find out if an attorney has been sanctioned. But for more detailed information, one must go back to the homepage and search the disciplinary decisions.
Suzanne Blonder, senior counsel for HALT, a Washington-based nonprofit legal reform organization, said attorney discipline records are not as readily available as doctors’ records.
“The legal profession has made important strides in recent years when it comes to putting information online,” she said, “but they are still light years behind when compared to other professions.”
Last year, HALT ranked Pennsylvania’s site the best in the country. California, New Jersey and Illinois also were among the top 10. The 10 worst sites included those of Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina.
HALT looked at factors such as how easy the Web sites are to find, whether they can be navigated intuitively, whether they provide clear information about the disciplinary process, feature searchable databases and offer a disciplinary history on all of the state’s sanctioned lawyers.
But Blonder pointed out that even states with the best sites do not make publicly available private sanctions against lawyers, like admonitions or reprimands, that are less serious than other disciplinary sanctions and are not disclosed.
Rhode, from Stanford, said the secrecy in large part occurs because disciplinary systems are typically run by lawyers, who want to protect their profession. And because disciplinary agencies do not handle criminal matters, that information may not appear in a lawyer’s record.
All these loopholes leave room for companies such as Seattle’s Avvo Inc. to get involved, said Rhode, who serves on Avvo’s advisory board. The company rates lawyers on its Web site and currently has information on about 400,000 lawyers in 10 states. A proposed class action challenging Avvo’s rating system as unfair has been filed. Brown v. Avvo, No. CV7-920 (W.D. Wash.).
Mark Britton, the company’s chief executive officer and president, said the possibility of a suit may deter other companies from entering the market, but said there is no question about the need for easy-to-find information on lawyers’ disciplinary records.
Britton referred to a survey commissioned by Avvo last year which said that only 17% of consumers found it easy to locate information about lawyers.
“Detailed information is hard to get and consumers are very intimidated by the legal industry,” he said. “Anything that is hard plus intimidating leads to a lot of consumers actually not getting the help they need.”