Attorney Ranks Grow, Ethics Violations Shrink

OARC report outlines a greater focus on proactive projects, fewer ethics cases

The Colorado Supreme Court Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel published its annual report last week, and according to the office, its plan of offering educational tools and proactive measures to help attorneys avoid ethics issues is paying off.


The report highlights the growing — though slowing — number of attorneys in the state as well as the continued decrease in ethics complaints that are filed and that progress through the office’s dispute resolution process. Likewise, the report illustrates the number of people involved with the office and the broad scope of its duties that go beyond ethics enforcement.

ATTORNEY GROWTH

For the OARC, attorney admissions is the first opportunity to interact with attorneys in the state. Attorney regulation counsel administers the bar exam and conducts character and fitness reviews of exam, on motion, and Uniform Bar Exam score transfer applicants. This year, the number of applicants sitting for the bar exam remained steady, and the report says that will remain the same for the next two years. By 2020, the number of applicants sitting for the bar exam might increase again. And on motion and UBE transfer applicant numbers are rising as well. 

Colorado has seen considerable growth, and the OARC points out that the number of attorneys looking to transfer their practices to the state are growing as well. Changes to the state’s on motion transfer process in 2014 eased the requirements for attorneys coming to Colorado.  

Attorney Regulation Counsel Jim Coyle said that while those numbers are growing, they’re not keeping pace with the growth of the state overall. 

“Are they taking jobs from other lawyers? We as a profession can’t be territorial,” Coyle said. “We can’t restrain trade. … The public interest is to have good quality lawyers and consumer choice.” 

He said that for practicing attorneys, the fact that there are more lawyers in the state shouldn’t affect their practice, but it might require them to think harder on marketing, and to be more creative in how they deliver legal services.

In addition to tracking the numbers joining the ranks of attorneys, the office has added more demographics tracking over the past few years, and there are plans to expand that to include self-reported race, sexual orientation and veteran status tracking in 2019 as well. 

“I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that the legal profession doesn’t reflect the general population,” Coyle said. “We can do improvement, but we need a baseline to establish where the numbers are now.”

ETHICS DISPUTES

The primary function of the OARC is getting involved in attorney ethics complaints and levying discipline in cases where it finds there have been violations. The annual report shows decreasing numbers in almost all areas involving attorney discipline — from the complaints filed in the first place to matters that make it all the way to a trial. The OARC has seen new lows in the number of complaints filed, the number of cases that go on to investigation and the number of trials. 

Coyle said those lows could be in part driven by the fact that people are using lawyers less than in the past and are also more frequently turning to online reviews rather than traditional processes to voice complaints about attorneys. 

When there are fewer client interactions, there are also fewer complaints, he said. But, he also said he believes the low numbers are driven by educational and proactive efforts made by the office as well as a change in how attorneys approach client service.

“People don’t go through three years of law school, study hard and take the bar exam only to lose their ability to practice law by doing something stupid,” Coyle said. “The educational programs the court has been working hard on are working. Expect to continue to see a decline in requests for investigation as lawyers become more client-centric and as client satisfaction increases. There won’t be as many complaints.”

OTHER INITIATIVES

The OARC has also been involved in several other initiatives of late, including efforts focused on attorney wellness and creating an attorney practice self-assessment, all with the goal of fulfilling the office’s duty to help lawyers “throughout the stages of their careers successfully navigate the practice of law.”

Coyle and Bree Buchanan, director of the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, have led a task force on attorney wellness since 2016, and Colorado’s Taskforce on Well-Being, chaired by Colorado Supreme Court Justice Monica Marquez, is gathering stakeholders from all areas of the profession as well as professional liability carriers and law schools in Colorado and Wyoming to come up with recommendations for the Supreme Court. 

Coyle said the task force will involve “all stakeholders in the legal profession who recognize the issues involving the legal profession —the rates of mental health disorders and the toxic environment lawyers practice in — those circumstances aren’t sustainable, and we have to make a change in the legal profession’s culture.”

Within the past year, the office has also launched a self-assessment program to help solo attorneys identify areas to improve their practice in order to avoid ethical problems as well as provide better client service. 

Colorado is leading U.S. jurisdictions with both of those projects, and Coyle said members of his office have made 200 presentations within the past year to promote those initiatives and others. 

“It’s good for business to think about that. If you want to build a book of business, it’s important to serve clients as well as you can. If you take the time to create ethical infrastructure in your office, you’re most likely to have client satisfaction and client referrals,” Coyle said.

—Tony Flesor

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