Terry lifts the mail from his in-tray and casually flips through the envelopes. At the bottom of the pile, he sees a large envelope with the law society logo prominently in the corner. “What’s this about?” he wonders, and immediately tears it open.
As he scans the letter, Terry feels his stomach clench and his brow involuntarily furrow.
The dreaded law society complaint is commonly announced in a letter with attached supporting documents. More rarely a lawyer will receive a call.
Fear of such a complaint is a common source of anxiety. For many, law is a calling, and the idea that they be examined and found wanting is a horror.
If that daunting day arrives and you are subject to an investigation, remember the following points.
You are in good company
Many fine and talented lawyers, including some of the best of the profession, have faced a law society investigation.
Legal work entails interacting with people who are often in stressful professional or personal life situations. Misunderstandings happen. Miscommunication occurs. Emotions get heated and thinking is impaired.
From this, complaints can arise.
In the words of one senior solicitor I spoke with: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion — just because someone else thinks you’ve made a mistake doesn’t mean you have.”
A significant number of complaints to the law society are rendered groundless. The fact is most lawyers will have to address a complaint at some point in their careers. The Law Society of Manitoba recently noted in a continuing legal education course — Dealing with Complaints to the Law Society – What Every Lawyer Needs to Know” — that “while (a law society complaint) can be heart stopping, most times it does not need to be as serious as it may first feel. The vast majority of complaints are resolved without disciplinary action.”
If you have made a mistake you are not alone. No lawyer is perfect and mistakes happen. That’s what insurance is for.
This is a high-stress situation. Your local Lawyers Assistance Program has considerable experience helping lawyers in these circumstances. Call them without delay.
As one lawyer told me: “It is very difficult not to take a complaint to the law society personally. You need to process the experience as a form of trauma — it’s a kick to the psyche, so take the time and get the help you need to make sure you process it.”
Your local lawyer assistance program may be able to connect you with peer support. Speaking with others who have been through the complaint process will help to normalize the situation.
You will likely experience a range and intensity of emotions. Your assistance program or another counsellor can help you manage the stress, process and move through any feelings of guilt, shame and anger that may arise. This is vital to your acceptance and understanding that making mistakes doesn’t make you a “bad lawyer.”
This support is also important for helping you keep your legal practice running smoothly during the investigation.
As the proverb goes, “The lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Investigations are taxing. None of us reasons well under stress and, most dangerously, we don’t even realize how unclearly we are thinking until much later. By then, the damage is done.
My advice is not to self represent.
Lawyer assistance programs and the CBA have a list of lawyers who will help with law society matters, many in a kind and non-judgmental manner.
In addition to your personal distress, you are also unlikely to know the ins and outs of law society investigations. Retaining a lawyer familiar with the workings of your jurisdiction’s law society will help ensure the investigation and your response are being handled in the best way possible.
Respond to the complaint
The law society requires a prompt but not immediate response. Connect with a legal adviser swiftly. Your lawyer can call the law society on your behalf. This initial call may reveal the situation is not as severe as it first appeared.
Take care to provide complete information that is honest and accurate. Do not succumb to the temptation to blame someone else — even if your bookkeeper made the mistake, you are responsible as the lawyer.
Do not overshare
Oversharing causes more problems than it resolves.
The complaint letter may include all manner of extraneous detail, but you don’t need to respond in kind. Restrict your reply to the important points.
There have been cases where a spurious claim that could have been dismissed is answered with a long letter that opens up new issues instead of resolving the complaint.
Learn what you can and use the experience to improve
When you are through the initial shock and have help to work through the anxiety, an opportunity opens up for learning.
As one senior counsel told me: “Look at this as an opportunity to learn how to improve — and acknowledge that is easier said than done.”
The experience may give you insights you need to build a stronger practice foundation and allow you to perform at a higher level going forward.
Take steps to minimize the disruption
Undergoing a law society investigation is inherently disruptive, and it will cause strong emotions to arise.
The choices you make early in the proceedings will significantly impact how troublesome it is to your practice and how disturbing it is for you.
If you take just one message away from this article make it this — seek guidance from experienced professionals. Their feedback and direction will make the experience easier to bear and will help you regain your confidence more swiftly. Their presence will also help you handle the situation in the best possible way, for you.
Allison Wolf is lawyer coach with Shift Works Strategic and founder of the blog lawyerwithalife.com. Drawing on 20 years as a legal marketing professional and 13 years as a certified executive coach, she helps lawyers build successful and fulfilling legal practices. Her mission is “to help make law a career lawyers recommend to their children.”