This situation is easy to fall into because with the exception or Oregon, at least some part of the disciplinary process is kept private. This means that potential clients have no way of knowing whether a complaint has been made against a lawyer if no action has been taken. Although some complaints against lawyers are frivolous, the consumer has no way of knowing whether the decision by the state bar not to take any action was made in good faith. Furthermore, the action taken may only amount to a private reprimand in the form of a letter sent to the attorney. According to a recent investigation by the Washington Times, lawyers guilty of serious ethical violations and felonies are at the most only suspended for a limited period of time and made to make restitution to the client. Even the most severe punishment, disbarment, is not permanent since in most states the attorney can apply for reinstatement in five years.
Not only are the actions taken against lawyers found guilty of ethical violations not published in many states, this information is unavailable even in publications and databases relied upon by consumers to avoid this problem. There are attorneys listed in the well-respected Martindale-Hubbell Lawyers Directory who may be under suspension, disbarred, or imprisoned. The database set up by the American Bar Association (ABA) to allow consumers to find out whether a lawyer has been sanctioned is a great deal less than helpful since no details are given as to the offense charged or the punishment given.
Out of all the complaints made against lawyers, only one half of one per cent result in disbarment, and a total of only one and one half percent result in any sanction at all including private reprimands.