State Bar of Georgia
State Bar of Georgia

The Supreme Court of Georgia created the State Bar of Georgia in 1964. The Court authorized the Bar to maintain rules of professional conduct for lawyers practicing in the state, and to enforce those rules by bringing disciplinary proceedings against lawyers who violate them. The Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct can be found on the Bar’s website. They govern lawyers in their professional dealings, but do not usually cover personal conduct unless the lawyer is convicted of a crime. It is a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct to be convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude where the underlying conduct relates to the practice of law. We give lawyers the same presumption of innocence that anyone arrested for a crime gets, so we do not begin a disciplinary investigation when the lawyer is arrested.

The disciplinary process is complex, and the early stages of an investigation are completely confidential, even as to the Bar’s officers and other leadership. The Supreme Court of Georgia regulates the practice of law in Georgia and has the final say regarding any public discipline against a lawyer. The State Disciplinary Board decides which cases the State Bar of Georgia will prosecute and the lawyers in the Office of the General Counsel prosecute those cases. The Office of the General Counsel is funded by the annual license fees Bar members pay to the State Bar of Georgia. There are three stages to a disciplinary matter—the initial screening process, formal investigation by the State Disciplinary Board and disposition either through dismissal, imposition of confidential discipline or public proceedings.

The Screening Process

When a member of the public contacts the State Bar about a problem with a lawyer, the inquiry goes to the Client Assistance Program (CAP). CAP can intervene when a client is having trouble communicating with their lawyer or when a call to the lawyer might resolve the problem. If CAP staff cannot resolve the matter informally, they may send a grievance form to the person who has complained.

The Bar Rules require that grievances be submitted in writing on a form approved by the State Disciplinary Board. The grievance form and instructions for completing it are available here.

Filing a grievance is the most direct method of bringing possible misconduct to the attention of the Bar, but Rule 4-202 also allows the Office of the General Counsel to begin an investigation when it receives “credible information” of a violation of the rules. Articles in the press or misconduct reported in court orders may serve as the basis for an investigation even when no one has filed a grievance.

The screening process typically involves sending the grievance to the respondent lawyer with a request for a response within 14 days. When the lawyer responds, the Bar’s Grievance Counsel may send the response to the grievant for additional comments or rebuttal. The Grievance Counsel may ask the lawyer for a copy of the client file, bank records or other information that would help resolve the matter.

At the end of the screening process the Office of the General Counsel may dismiss grievances that do not present sufficient merit to proceed. Those that seem to involve a violation of Bar Rules proceed to the next level of investigation with the State Disciplinary Board. 

The State Disciplinary Board

The State Disciplinary Board is made up of volunteers who are appointed by the Supreme Court and the State Bar president for three-year terms. The Court and the Bar president are encouraged to make appointments that will ensure geographic, gender, racial and generational diversity. There are also four nonlawyer members. The lawyer members are assigned individual grievances to investigate, and the group serves almost like a grand jury that determines whether there is probable cause to believe that a lawyer’s conduct violated Bar Rules.

The Board’s work begins when the respondent lawyer is served with a Notice of Investigation. The Notice lists the specific rules that are involved in the investigation and must be served on the lawyer in accordance with the Bar Rules.

The Respondent lawyer must submit a sworn, written response to the Notice of Investigation within 30 days after service. If the lawyer does not respond and if the lawyer is accused of violating a rule that carries a penalty of disbarment, the Board may recommend that the lawyer be suspended from practice until the lawyer files a response. These “interim suspensions” are based solely on the lawyer’s failure to cooperate with the investigative process and not on the merits of the underlying case.

The Board member who is assigned to a particular investigation is responsible for gathering the information necessary to make a probable cause finding. The Bar employs three paralegal/investigators who help with the formal investigation. Most Board members correspond in writing and by telephone with the Respondent and the complaining party. They may also issue subpoenas for necessary documents, such as bank records.
The Board meets at least eight times per year to consider cases. The Board may take one of the following steps:

  1. Dismissal
    If after investigation it does not appear that the lawyer has violated a Georgia Rule of Professional Conduct, the Board will dismiss the grievance. In cases where there is a technical violation that has not resulted in harm to clients, the Board may decide to dismiss with a letter of instruction regarding best practices to help the lawyer avoid client complaints in the future. Bar Rules require that the Bar destroy all record of a dismissed grievance after one year.
  2. Letter of Admonition
    A Letter of Admonition is the lowest level of discipline. It is confidential and is used when the lawyer has committed a violation inadvertently or through ignorance of the rules. Letters of Admonition are also confidential, but the Bar may use the letter as an aggravating factor if the lawyer ever violates the rules again.

    A lawyer may reject imposition of a Letter of Admonition and choose instead to have a judge (“special master”) decide the case. 
  3. State Disciplinary Board Reprimand
    State Disciplinary Board Reprimand is also confidential discipline, but it is used in cases that warrant more than a Letter of Admonition. The Respondent lawyer is required to appear at a Board meeting and is reprimanded by the Chair in front of the entire Board. A lawyer may reject imposition of a Board Reprimand and choose instead to have a special master decide the case.
  4. Finding of Probable Cause/Notice of Discipline
    The Disciplinary Board may issue a Notice of Discipline when the facts of a case are clear so that there is no need for a hearing before a special master. In a Notice of Discipline, the Board notifies the Supreme Court of its findings and asks the Court to impose a specific level of public discipline against the lawyer. The lawyer has the opportunity to reject the Notice and proceed to a hearing before a special master. If the lawyer does not reject the Notice, the Supreme Court decides the matter based on the information before it.
  5. Finding of Probable Cause/Referral to Special Master
    When there is probable cause to believe that the lawyer has violated Bar Rules but there are still facts in dispute after investigation, the Disciplinary Board may refer the matter to a special master for a hearing. In those cases, the Bar’s Office of the General Counsel serves as the prosecutor in the case.
  6. Evaluation for Mental Incapacity or Substance Abuse
    Bar Rule 4-104 allows the State Disciplinary Board to refer a lawyer for a medical or mental health evaluation if there are signs of mental illness, cognitive impairment, alcohol abuse or substance abuse. The referral is confidential and the Board may hold disciplinary proceedings in order to have the lawyer evaluated. If the lawyer does not participate or cooperate with the evaluation, the Board may take further action as it deems appropriate.
  7. Emergency Suspension
    Bar Rule 4-108 allows the State Disciplinary Board to ask that a lawyer be suspended on an emergency basis if the lawyer poses a substantial threat of harm to the public or to clients. The rule provides for an expedited hearing before a special master. 
  8. Referral to Other Bar Resources
    The Board may also refer respondent lawyers to the Client Assistance Program, the Lawyer Assistance Program, the Fee Arbitration Program or the Law Practice Management Program.

Disciplinary Prosecution by the Office of the General Counsel (Rules 4-209 through 4-217)

Once the Board has made a probable cause finding and referred a matter for hearing before a special master, the case goes back to the Office of the General Counsel for prosecution. The Bar files a complaint in the Supreme Court of Georgia and the Supreme Court appoints a special master to serve as judge. At this point all proceedings in the case are public. 

The complaint must be served on the respondent lawyer, who has 30 days to file an answer. The case proceeds through discovery, just like a civil case in court. The person who filed the grievance is usually a witness at any hearing in the case. Many cases are resolved with the Respondent lawyer filing a Petition for Voluntary Discipline, which requires that the lawyer admit to engaging in conduct that violates the rules.

After a case is resolved through a voluntary petition or with a hearing, the special master issues a report and recommendation that contains findings of fact, conclusions of law and a recommendation of discipline. That recommendation may be reviewed by a Review Board, which upon request of the Bar or the Respondent may review the special master’s findings for errors. 

Decision by the Supreme Court of Georgia (Rule 4-218)

The Supreme Court reviews the pleadings and transcripts from every special master case and enters an order. The Court may issue a public reprimand, suspend the lawyer from practice for any period of time up to five years, disbar the lawyer or determine the lawyer should not be disciplined. 

After entry of the order, a lawyer who has been suspended or disbarred must immediately stop practicing law and must notify clients of the discipline. A suspended lawyer may resume practice at the end of the suspension but must also comply with any conditions the Court has imposed, such as repaying money owed to clients. A disbarred lawyer may not practice law again without going through the entire Bar Admissions process, including taking and passing the bar examination.

Public Discipline Posted on the Bar’s Website

If the Supreme Court of Georgia has issued an order disciplining a lawyer, the order is placed on the Bar’s website. You can find these orders by searching the lawyer’s name in the online Member Directory. Once you click on the lawyer’s name and their information is displayed, click on “history on file” beside “public discipline.” The Supreme Court orders will be posted there. If the lawyer has no history of public discipline, the website will show “none on record” beside “public discipline.”