For instructions on how to file a complaint with the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, click here
Complaints/Discipline – FAQs
Filing a complaint against an attorney
Many people feel intimidated by the process because they aren’t experienced with the law. That concern is understandable, but all you need is your story. The intake specialist or intake attorney will ask you to tell them what happened and to describe your concerns.
The average intake call lasts between 20 and 30 minutes. An intake specialist will start by asking for your name, mailing address and contact information. (Anonymous complaints are not taken.) You also will be asked for any applicable case number and the attorney’s name and office address. For help with this information, visit the attorney search page. We will ask you to describe your situation in chronological order, if possible.
At the end of the call, the intake specialist will assign a case number to your request for investigation and give you the name of the intake attorney who will handle the matter.
Details matter. Before calling, make a chronological outline, including the approximate dates of the problems you encountered. You should be able to discuss your case in detail when you call. During the interview, have on hand any documents that provide helpful information.
Regulation attorneys have to prove your claims by “clear and convincing evidence.” This is a legally defined burden of proof. It is more rigorous than the preponderance of the evidence standard but less rigorous than proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt. In order to prove a claim by clear and convincing evidence, regulation attorneys must show that it is substantially more likely than not the claim is true and that it violates a Rule. This higher standard often requires specific dates, specific information and other supporting documentation. Be prepared with this information, if you have it.
The intake division is the triage unit for the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. Attorneys and staff here are the front line for all complaints, deciding how a case is handled and whether it moves forward.
When you call the office, one of our trained intake investigators will ask you to explain your concerns and to provide the factual background of what happened. They will assign the case to an intake attorney who will review the facts of the matter and decide whether the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct are implicated, whether further investigation is warranted and whether any rule violation can be proven by clear and convincing evidence.
If the intake attorney determines that the Rules are not implicated or that there is not clear and convincing evidence of any Rule violation, the matter will be closed and dismissed. If, on the other hand, the intake attorney determines that there is clear and convincing evidence of minor ethical misconduct, the matter may be resolved with an alternative to discipline (link to “diversion” question below). Finally, if the intake attorney determines that further investigation is warranted or that there is clear and convincing evidence of more serious ethical misconduct, the matter will be forwarded to the trial division of the office for further action.
Many cases are resolved at the intake level, either through dismissal or by an alternative to discipline. If an intake attorney wants more information, he or she may conduct a phone interview to gather more details or ask you to send a letter or other documentation describing the matter. If the intake attorney believes the Rules are implicated or that there is evidence of a rule violation, he or she will probably seek an explanation from the respondent attorney.
The Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel is a professional oversight agency. The office investigates allegations of ethical misconduct by attorneys to determine whether attorneys have violated the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct.
If there is clear and convincing evidence of a minor Rule violation, the office pursues an appropriate remedial solution, such as a diversion agreement or a dismissal with an educational letter. This achieves the goal of the office by protecting the public and educating otherwise upstanding attorneys while not stripping them of their livelihood.
For more serious misconduct, the office pursues a disciplinary sanction against the attorney’s license, which can include private admonition, public censure, suspension, or disbarment.The office also takes ethics complaints about:
By the time you’ve decided to file a request for investigation, you’re likely frustrated. Maybe you see the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel as a form of relief. But it’s important to understand what this office does NOT do.
The office has no jurisdiction over civil or criminal proceedings. We cannot remove or replace your attorney, offer legal advice, help recover attorney fees or seek to overturn unfavorable rulings or court orders in your case.
If you are currently engaged in a civil or criminal dispute, you should proceed with your own counsel. If you believe you have a claim for civil damages, you should seek outside counsel. For help finding a lawyer, you may want to contact the Colorado Bar Association at www.cobar.org or (303) 860-1115.
Disputes over the amount or the payment of fees may be submitted to the Colorado Bar Association’s Legal Fee Arbitration Committee or another appropriate forum for resolution.
There is no cost for filing a request for investigation. The Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel is funded by annual attorney registration fees.
- Neglecting a client’s case;
- Misplacing or mishandling client money or money that belongs to a third party, or not paying money owed to a client or owed to a third party;
- Not returning a client’s file or documents upon request at the conclusion of a case;
- Failing to take action to safeguard a client’s property;
- Dishonesty to a client, a court, or others;
- Criminal conduct; and
- Unreasonably failing to communicate significant updates in a case, upcoming court dates or other important deadlines and information about a legal matter to a client.
There are many situations that clients may find annoying but that do not violate the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. For example, an honest disagreement over how a case should be handled is not misconduct. An attorney not achieving a favorable outcome in a legal matter typically isn’t misconduct. Except under unusual circumstances, a disagreement over legal fees also is not evidence of a rule violation. Such disputes may be presented to the Colorado Bar Association’s Legal Fee Arbitration Committee or another appropriate forum for resolution.
Many callers raise concerns about attorneys for what might be characterized as unprofessional behavior. Attorneys who are rude or fail to respond to each client phone call may not be upholding the highest standards of the profession but aren’t breaking any ethical rules. However, in some instances unprofessional conduct may implicate the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct and may be addressed by the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. In those cases, the office may suggest steps that attorneys can take to prevent future unprofessional conduct, or in some cases may pursue a disciplinary sanction against the lawyer.
If you have lost money or property through the dishonest conduct of an attorney during the course of an attorney-client relationship, you may be entitled to seek reimbursement through the Attorneys’ Fund for Client Protection.
The Attorneys’ Fund for Client Protection is funded by a portion of the attorney registration fees paid by each Colorado attorney. No taxpayer dollars are used. The board administering the fund has set a limit of $50,000 per claim. As of December 31, 2012, the fund has paid out $5.1 million.
Under Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 252.16, an attorney cannot charge you legal fees to help file a claim with the fund.
Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 251.32 requires that a claim be filed within five years from the time you discover or reasonably should have discovered the attorney’s misconduct. There is no rule of limitations for filing a complaint alleging theft of client funds or fraud.
Many people who are upset about the way the lawyer handled their case or about a perceived lack of communication have never expressed those concerns to the lawyer.
We often suggest that people in this situation put those concerns in a written letter to the attorney. If you send a letter like this to a lawyer, it is usually a good idea to give the lawyer a deadline of 10 or 14 days to respond to your concerns. Keep a copy of the letter for your records. If you choose to relay your concerns to the attorney over the phone or in person, write a confirmation letter to the attorney detailing the conversation, and keep a copy of that letter as well. The intake specialist or intake attorney may ask for a copy of any written correspondence with your lawyer.
A letter serves two purposes. One, your attorney may be able to address your issues if he or she sees them in writing. Two, if your attorney doesn’t address your concerns, the letter provides documented proof of your attempts to get answers to your questions and to solve the alleged problems.
A disagreement over legal fees is usually not evidence of misconduct. Most disputes over how fees have been used or whether they’ve been earned are referred to the Legal Fee Arbitration Committee of the Colorado Bar Association, or to a different arbitration forum, mediation or the civil courts.
The office strives to return complaining witnesses’ calls within two weeks. At that point, an intake attorney or other intake personnel will gather more information about your claims to determine whether there is evidence of a rule violation.
If the intake attorney suspects a rule violation, he or she may ask you to put your complaint in writing and submit it along with any documents supporting your claim. If the complaint doesn’t rise to the level of a violation, or if there is not enough evidence to prove the claim by clear and convincing evidence, then the complaint may be dismissed.
There are three possible resolutions at this stage:
- The intake attorney may dismiss the case if he or she determines the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct are not implicated or that there is not clear and convincing evidence of any Rule violation.
- If there is evidence of minor ethical misconduct that qualifies for an alternative to discipline, the intake attorney may offer diversion (link to diversion question) to the attorney.
- If there is clear evidence of more serious misconduct, the matter is assigned to a trial attorney for further investigation and possible pursuit of a disciplinary sanction.
Yes. A complaining witness will be notified if the intake attorney dismisses the case, determines that alternatives to discipline are appropriate through a diversion program, or processes the matter to a trial attorney.
Except in unusual circumstances, the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel does not disclose details about, or even the existence of, any investigation until a formal complaint is filed with the Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge. This means requests for investigation that are dismissed or result in an alternative to discipline are not made public by the office. In other words, cases handled at the central intake section of the office are confidential. This confidentiality is required by the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure.
However, respondents and complaining witnesses are NOT bound by confidentiality rules. For instance, complaining witnesses may disclose the details of their complaint in a civil malpractice case. (Whether that will be allowed as evidence in such a case is a matter for the judge to decide.) Complaining witnesses are also notified if the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel enters into a diversion agreement (link to diversion question) with the respondent attorney. Details of such agreements, however, are NOT revealed to the complaining witness.
For more details on access to information about disciplinary proceedings, see rule 251.31 of the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure.
After a complaint is filed
Most attorneys are understandably upset when they're notified of a complaint against them. Anxiety about loss of a license or a soiled reputation is common, but isn't necessarily warranted.
The Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel is required to look into all complaints. If the attorney is asked for a response, it in no way indicates that the office has prejudged the merits of the allegations.
The office is charged with ensuring that an attorney's conduct conforms to the requirements of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct and other law, both in professional services to clients and in the lawyer's business and personal affairs. This does not mean simply disciplining attorneys. The primary goal is to protect the public, and that's often achieved through rehabilitative solutions. The office wields a number of tools for this purpose, including educational courses and referrals to treatment when appropriate.
Roughly 90 percent of the 4,000 complaints received by the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel each year are resolved in the intake division (link to intake question)— either through dismissal or through a diversion agreement.
So what should you expect if you are the subject of a complaint? For further information about the intake stage, read the frequently asked questions below.
If the intake attorney assigned to the investigation determines that a response from the attorney is required, the office will send the attorney a formal letter requesting a response. The letter will describe the facts of the complaint and list the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct implicated. Pursuant to C.R.C.P. 251.10(a), the attorney has 21 days to respond to this letter.
Yes. The office will send the attorney's response to the complaining witness, who then has 14 days to file his or her own response.
Investigations vary in their form. In general, however, an investigator within the office will begin by collecting documents related to the case. These can include trust account records, bank records, court records, fee agreements and billing statements. The Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel can subpoena records, if necessary.
The intake attorney will then review the documents and begin interviewing witnesses. The intake attorney may dismiss the case or seek to enter into a diversion agreement (link to diversion question) with the respondent attorney pursuant to C.R.C.P. 251.13, which is an alternative to discipline reserved for less serious matters.
If the case is not appropriate for dismissal or diversion at the intake stage, the intake attorney may process the case to the trial division for further investigation or to prepare for the filing of a formal complaint with the Presiding Disciplinary Judge. The trial attorney will likely interview the complaining witness and the respondent in person.
During the investigation, the respondent attorney and the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel may enter into a conditional admission of misconduct, in which the parties stipulate to factual findings, rule violations, and the form of discipline to be imposed.
At the conclusion of the investigation, the trial attorney will either seek to dismiss the case or file a report of investigation with the Attorney Regulation Committee (link to question about what ARC is).
If the trial attorney seeks dismissal, he or she will recommend that course to Regulation Counsel who has the power to dismiss the case. You will be notified by letter of this outcome.
If the trial attorney does not seek dismissal, he or she will submit a report of investigation to the Attorney Regulation Committee. The report outlines the case and can recommend diversion or private admonition or request authority to file a formal complaint with the Presiding Disciplinary Judge.
Yes. The office strives to conduct a fair and transparent investigation. A respondent attorney may inspect the case file at any time.
Yes. A respondent attorney is required to cooperate with an investigation by the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. Failing to do so may have consequences within the discipline system.
If the attorney does not respond to a request for investigation or does not produce requested information or documents, Regulation Counsel may seek an immediate suspension of the attorney's law license pursuant to C.R.C.P. 251.8.6.
Attorney Regulation Counsel may also seek discipline for failure to cooperate based on a violation of Colorado Rule of Professional Conduct 8.1(b).
The time varies, but in 2012 the average case took less than six months from when it was assigned to the trial division to completion of the investigative report.
One factor is the trial division's heavy caseload. The handful of trial attorneys handled 368 investigations in 2012.
Another factor is the timeline ingrained in the process. The office allows three weeks for the respondent attorney to respond and another two weeks for the complaining witness to reply after that. If records need to be subpoenaed, that can take another couple months.
The attorney discipline process can feel long for parties involved in a case. Still, it moves much quicker than traditional civil cases. The length also ensures a thorough investigation and that due process is afforded to both parties.
It's a lot like a plea agreement in criminal proceedings. While a case is under investigation, the respondent attorney and the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel may enter into an agreement where the respondent attorney stipulates to factual findings and admits to misconduct in exchange for specified discipline. If the agreed-upon discipline is anything more than private censure, the agreement must be approved by the Presiding Disciplinary Judge. See C.R.C.P. 251.22.
Stipulated agreements are public documents.
Generally speaking, if the respondent attorney's conduct would warrant a private admonition or a public censure, the case may be eligible for diversion. Diversion is an alternative to discipline. Diversion agreements are governed by C.R.C.P. 251.13.
The rule provides three general criteria for when the office may offer diversion:
- There is little likelihood of the attorney harming the public during the diversion period.
- The office can adequately supervise the diversion program.
- The attorney is likely to benefit from participation in the program.
If the attorney's conduct would warrant a sanction greater than public censure, the case generally will not be diverted. Those circumstances may include misappropriation of funds, serious criminal conduct, loss by a client due to the conduct, or a pattern of misconduct.
For more details on when diversion may be offered and when it may not, read C.R.C.P. 251.13(b).
Diversion agreements can last from one to three years. As part of the diversion, the attorney generally agrees to refrain from further misconduct for the term of the diversion. The attorney may be required to undergo monitoring to help prevent further misconduct. If the diversion is successfully completed, the case is dismissed. If the attorney violates the terms of the diversion, disciplinary proceedings may follow.
The American Bar Association's Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions establishes a framework for how the office decides which sanctions to seek. The facts of individual cases, however, also factor into the office's decision.
Decisions about how to proceed with cases, including what discipline should be sought, are brought before the entire trial division during its weekly meetings.
There are several possible resolutions during the investigation phase:
- Trial counsel finds no violations of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct and requests the case be dismissed. Regulation Counsel must approve dismissals.
- Trial counsel finds a minor violation of the rules and enters into a diversion agreement (link to question about diversion) with the attorney respondent. Diversion agreements must be approved by the Attorney Regulation Committee.
- Trial counsel finds a more serious rule violation and submits a report to the Attorney Regulation Committee recommending formal disciplinary proceedings.
- The attorney respondent and trial counsel enter into a stipulated agreement (link to question about stipulated agreements). Stipulated agreements must be approved by the Presiding Disciplinary Judge.
- The case may placed in abeyance when a respondent attorney is disbarred in a separate case or when the attorney is placed on disability inactive status.
- The case goes directly to the Presiding Disciplinary Judge or the Colorado Supreme Court, sidestepping the Attorney Regulation Committee. This happens when an attorney has been disciplined in another state or if there was an immediate suspension of the attorney's license during the investigative phase.
The Attorney Regulation Committee is the gatekeeper for all formal proceedings against respondent attorneys. A proceeding becomes "formal," and thus public, when a formal complaint is filed against the attorney with the Presiding Disciplinary Judge.
At the completion of investigation, the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel will write a report including the facts of the case and recommending that there is reasonable cause to believe grounds for discipline exist. The report is then submitted to the independent Attorney Regulation Committee. The respondent attorney is allowed to respond in writing to this report.
After considering the report, the committee can request that the office conduct further investigation, dismiss the complaint, refer the respondent attorney to a diversion program, order private admonition, or authorize the office to prepare and file a formal complaint against the attorney.
The committee is composed of nine members, six attorneys and three public members. The rules governing the committee are C.R.C.P. 251.2 and 251.12.
- whether the case can reasonably be proven
- the level of injury
- whether the attorney has previously been disciplined
- whether the conduct involves misrepresentation, conversion or commingling of funds, acts of violence, or criminal or other misconduct that generally would result in public censure, suspension or disbarment.
Drawing on the experience of its attorney members and the outside perspective of its non-lawyer members, the Attorney Regulation Committee considers:
Yes, and the Office of Attorney Regulation encourages it.
When the office submits the report of investigation to the Attorney Regulation Committee, the attorney will receive a copy. The attorney then has 10 days to file a response that will be considered by the committee.
This provides one more step in the due process and ensures the attorney receives every opportunity for his or her side to be heard.
Attorneys who specialize in representing respondent attorneys in disciplinary cases recommend respondent attorneys NOT do the following:
- Call the complaining witness to ask why they filed a complaint.
- Try to bargain with the complaining witness over the complaint.
- Write long letters to regulation counsel defending their position. If the trial attorney wants further information, he or she will ask for it.
Attorneys who represent respondents in disciplinary cases often recommend consulting with a lawyer before proceeding. Likewise, the Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge often recommends that respondent attorneys retain counsel.
Retaining counsel can be helpful because of the specialized nature of attorney discipline proceedings. Also, retaining counsel can be helpful because it is sometimes difficult for respondent attorneys to view their own cases objectively, without being influenced by the stress or emotion of being involved in a disciplinary case.
Yes. As a complaining witness, you may request that the Regulation Counsel or the Attorney Regulation Committee review a case's dismissal. The committee shall only reverse the dismissal if you can show that the decision was "an abuse of discretion."
For more information about appealing a dismissal, read Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 251.11.
The Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel's investigations have no bearing on civil proceedings. The complaining witness may still sue the attorney in a civil court.
If you believe an attorney has engaged in criminal activity, contact your local law enforcement or prosecutor's office in addition to filing a complaint with this office.
After the Attorney Regulation Committee approves the filing of a formal complaint, the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel attorney handling the case will file a public complaint with the Presiding Disciplinary Judge. After that, the case proceeds much like any other civil case. C.R.C.P. 251.14 – 251.19 govern the proceedings, and the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure generally apply.
The respondent attorney has 21 days after service of the complaint to file an answer with the Presiding Disciplinary Judge.
The case will be set for a hearing before a hearing board, which normally consists of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge and two attorneys selected from a pool of qualified volunteer hearing board members. The Presiding Disciplinary Judge will issue a scheduling order governing discovery, motions practice, and other pre-hearing matters.
C.R.C.P. 251.18 governs hearings before the hearing board.
At the conclusion of formal proceedings, the hearing board will issue a decision. The respondent attorney or the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel may appeal the hearing board's decision to the Colorado Supreme Court. See C.R.C.P. 251.27.