This happens frequently when lawyers are in the news—social media lights up with calls to disbar them for doing whatever the posters believe was out of line. Now, as someone with an increasingly public practice, I wait with bated breath to see if and when the virtual torches and pitchforks come for my license. I’d like to say I’d see it as a badge of honor, but probably in action I would not be as amused.
This post is not about whether any lawyer currently in the news deserves discipline, but about the process. So:
1) It is true, anyone can file a grievance against anyone else for anything. You don’t have to have a lawyer to do it and there is no fee. You don’t need to have an attorney-client relationship or even have ever met the person. There is a low (meaning, no) barrier to doing so. So, while it may or may not be wise to make a complaint against a public figure-lawyer for things you have only read about and don’t actually have first-hand knowledge about (cough), it can be done.
2) That said, before you go to the “State Bar,” make sure that’s the agency actually tasked with handling complaints. In Wisconsin and Illinois, the respective State Bars have absolutely nothing to do with grievances. Don’t bug them. In Illinois, the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission handles complaints; in Wisconsin, it is the Office of Lawyer Regulation. Before filing a grievance, find out where the lawyer is licensed and what agency handles such matters.
3) This isn’t American Idol. This is not a Change.org petition. Discipline isn’t determined based on how many calls are made to complain about the same attorney and the same set of facts. You might see “let’s all call and complain to let them know how serious this is!” and I see “let’s annoy the intake investigator so when I need to talk to them next week about an unrelated matter, they will be cranky.” Seriously. The agencies will conduct at least an initial review of anything that comes in, and the review does not get more detailed via astroturfing. If you read online or see in the news that someone has already filed a grievance against a lawyer, you don’t need to contribute anything. (But really also, You Really Don’t Need to Be Doing This anyway.)
4) Disbarment is rare. I would caution you to avoid becoming emotionally invested in any outcome here.
5) As always, I am not going to talk about Wisconsin lawyers facing grievances, unless they’re my client and have given me permission, or they’re very clearly and publicly not my client. (Eventually, this could extend to Illinois lawyers as well, but not yet.)