Formal ethics complaints against New Jersey attorneys fell markedly in 2012 after three straight years of increase, says a state judiciary report.

There were 238 formal complaints lodged last year, 24.9 percent fewer than the all-time high of 317 filed in 2011. There were 240 in 2010, 233 in 2009 and 189 in 2008.

The 2012 total is on target with the median (239) and average (243.7) number of complaints over the last decade.

The 2012 total "normalized" the data after the spike in previous years, says Charles Centinaro, director of the Office of Attorney Ethics, which issued the report on Wednesday. See full text of report here.

The 2011 high watermark of 317 was attributable to multiple complaints against some attorneys. Previous highs were 283 in 2005 and 281 in 2004.

Grievances, which begin the disciplinary process, dipped by 3.2 percent, to 1,349 from 1,392 — the lowest level in the last five years. There were 1,431 in 2010, 1,476 in 2009 and 1,394 in 2008.

Despite the drops in grievances and complaints, total sanctions, including final discipline and emergent action, were up for the second straight year, to 179 from 171 in 2011, a 4.7 percent increase.

That's still well below the historic high of 269 sanctions in 2002 and only slightly above the 175 median number of sanctions over the last decade.

Of the 179 lawyers sanctioned, 15 were disbarred, 16 were disbarred by consent, 26 were suspended for terms ranging from three months to three years, 13 were censured, 31 were reprimanded, 38 were admonished and 40 were temporarily suspended on an emergency basis.

The three most common types of offenses remained unchanged from prior years. The most common grounds for discipline were gross and patterned neglect (18 percent); knowing misappropriation of trust funds (14.4 percent); and other money offenses, including negligent or reckless appropriation, serious recordkeeping deficiencies, failure to safeguard funds and escrow violations (12.9 percent).

Meeting Targets

The OAE's efficiency continues to improve. Compliance with investigation time goals increased to 84 percent from 83 percent in 2011, 81 percent in 2010, 80 percent in 2009 and 77 percent in 2008.

The district ethics committees, which also conduct investigations, followed suit. They completed 78 percent of investigations within time goals, compared with 76 percent in 2011, 73 percent in 2010, and 70 percent each in 2009 and 2008.

Investigatory time goals, set by the Supreme Court, are six months if the case is designated "standard," or nine months if it's "complex."

Standard cases — which might involve client neglect, lack of communication or other routine charges — are investigated locally by a member of the district ethic committee, who issues a report to the committee chair. The committee in turn determines whether a formal complaint should be filed or the matter should be dismissed.

Complex cases — which typically involve multiple claims, criminal conduct or financial offenses — are handled by full-time OAE staff investigators.

Actual completion times vary, depending on how cooperative the respondent is and how difficult it is to obtain and analyze documents such as bank records, Centinaro says.

Before the investigation begins, the grievance is examined and, if viable claims are found, the matter is docketed — a process that's usually done within a few weeks, Centinaro says.

After the investigation, the matter may be dismissed, or the attorney could be referred to a diversionary program or formally charged in a complaint.

Officials aim to have complaints heard within six months, before one of the 18 district ethics committees if it's a standard case or before a special ethics master if it's complex.

The decisions then are reviewed by the Disciplinary Review Board, and final discipline is determined by the Supreme Court.

Bar Keeps on Growing

Grievances, complaints and sanctions fluctuate over time, but one metric has remained constant: perennial growth in attorney population, which has persisted right through the recession and economically stagnant years.

The 91,387 lawyers registered by year's end was 1.9 percent more than in 2011 (89,673). That's up 11.7 percent from five years ago (81,684), 15.5 percent from a decade ago (79,145) and 138 percent from 25 years ago (38,408).

Growth has been steady but less dramatic than the decades following 1970. That year, there were 11,408 lawyers; by 1990, that number had nearly quadrupled to 43,775.

According to the OAE, 2005 marked the only attorney population decrease in state history — to 77,434 from 81,617, a 5.1 percent decrease.

But not only was it anomalous, it was to be expected: that's the year the Supreme Court for the first time invoked Rule 1:28-2(c), which had been adopted the prior year and provided for license revocation for attorneys who have been ineligible to practice for seven consecutive years because of nonpayment of annual registration fees. In total, the court yanked 5,999 licenses.

Lawyer population, as in prior years, well outpaced general population growth. New Jersey's population of 8.865 million for 2012 is not quite a .5 percent increase over 2011 (8.821 million).

As a result, the layperson-to-lawyer ratio once again contracted, for the eighth year running. At year's end, there was one lawyer for every 97 residents, compared with 98:1 in 2001, 100:1 in 2010, 102:1 in 2009, 104:1 in 2008, 106:1 in 2007, 109:1 in 2006 and 113:1 in 2005.

The decades-long trend could be coming to an end, though, according to Centinaro.

"In a few years, you will see a decrease in the number of attorneys because finally enrollment in law schools" has declined, he says.