This is the non-lawyer version of a question I get a lot from lawyer clients—”how long is this disciplinary proceeding going to take?”
Unfortunately for lawyers facing discipline and curious lay folks alike, there’s no real answer. I know people get tired of hearing this from lawyers, but really, “it depends.” Every disciplinary authority has its own internal case processing goals, but it is often difficult to determine whether a particular case will fall within the guidelines.
Wisconsin’s Office of Lawyer Regulation’s annual report discusses its case processing statistics from the prior year, which can help provide a general sense of the timeline:
Processing times improved. Overall average processing time decreased from 121 days last year to 118 days this year. The average processing time for intake matters decreased from 45 days last year to 42 this year. The average processing time for formal investigations decreased from 285 days last year to 262 this year. The average processing time for complaints filed with the court decreased from 573 days last year to 529 days this year. The percentage of matters completed within 90 days increased from 80% last year to 83% this year. The percentage of matters completed within 180 days increased from 88% last year to 89% this year.
There was a decrease in the number of older matters during the past year. The number of matters over a year old decreased from 138 last year to 114 this year.
In Wisconsin, “intake matters” are the first step—an intake investigator takes the complaint from the grievant and, if the investigator determines that the complaint falls within OLR’s jurisdiction (it concerns a lawyer licensed or practicing in Wisconsin and alleges conduct that, if proven, would violate the Rules), they usually reach out to the respondent attorney for input. It’s informal at this stage. Following intake, the complaint can be resolved through dismissal, diversion, or potentially a stipulated reprimand. The average case that ends at this stage took 42 days.
However, a matter can also be escalated to “formal investigation” which is as it sounds. More detailed questions can be asked, and the answers are usually shared with the grievant. There can be several rounds of follow-up and back-and-forth. After this, again the complaint can be resolved through dismissal, diversion, a stipulated reprimand, or referral to the Preliminary Review Committee for a determination as to whether to file a complaint with the Supreme Court. The average case that ends at this stage took 262 days, and the average case that did go to the Supreme Court took 529 days, or more than a year. (The report does not say whether that 529 days includes time for a Supreme Court appeal and decision; based on personal experience I suspect it does not.)
While the report indicates that the overwhelming majority of cases (89%) took less than 180 days to complete, this is not always a useful metric when advising clients—the overwhelming majority of matters are resolved quickly at intake, via dismissal. (See page 10 of the above-linked report.) Not surprisingly, the cases that result in discipline take longer than the ones that don’t—and, often, the more serious the discipline (and the more the responding attorney wants to fight it) the longer it takes to complete.
So, that brings us to our title question—the reason that [redacted, this blog is not about politics] is not disbarred yet is because it takes time to investigate a complaint, determine whether the lawyer is deserving of sanctions and if so, what kind, and then implement them. Some states allow for temporary suspensions pending investigation, but that’s usually following a criminal conviction or a refusal to cooperate with investigation. The patience of the public is not a factor, for good reason. Lawyers facing discipline have due process rights—a right to fair notice of the charges, a right to counsel, and a right to a proper hearing. This is true whether you’re a solo practitioner in a rural area or someone filing meritless lawsuits nicknamed for legendary sea monsters.