Filing a Complaint Against an Attorney

Inquiries concerning the professional conduct of an attorney admitted to practice in Massachusetts are initially handled by the Attorney and Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP) of the Office of the Bar Counsel. The ACAP staff is available to discuss your concerns by telephone during normal business hours and can be reached at (617) 728-8750. If you would prefer to communicate your problem in writing, you can contact ACAP by fax at (617) 482-2992, by letter, or by completing the complaint form available below and mailing or faxing it to the Office of Bar Counsel. ACAP cannot accept inquiries over the internet.

Where possible, ACAP will attempt to assist in resolving attorney-client disputes by providing information, calling the attorney, or suggesting alternative ways of dealing with the problem. Please see the ACAP link for more information about how ACAP may be of assistance to you. If the matter brought to the attention of ACAP involves potentially serious misconduct on the part of the attorney warranting prompt investigation by the Office of Bar Counsel, ACAP will immediately issue a complaint form.

What You Should Know before Filing a Complaint

  • All attorneys admitted to practice in Massachusetts are governed by the Rules of Professional Conduct adopted by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The purpose of the Rules is to set forth minimum ethical standards for the practice of law. It is the responsibility of the Board of Bar Overseers and the Office of the Bar Counsel to see that the Rules of Professional Conduct are followed.

  • Inquiries concerning the professional conduct of an attorney admitted to practice in Massachusetts may be initially handled by the Attorney and Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP) of the Office of the Bar Counsel. ACAP issues all complaint forms and can be reached at (617) 728-8750.

  • In order for an attorney to be found to have committed misconduct, it must be shown that his or her acts have violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. Charges of misconduct must be supported by the facts.

  • Examples of attorney practices clearly prohibited by the Rules include:

    • Serious neglect of a client's case or a client. Examples would be an attorney's failure to file papers or documents with the court within time periods prescribed by law, or unreasonable failure to communicate with clients on a timely basis.

    • Failure to account to clients, as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct, concerning the status of funds or property being held by the attorney.

    • Commingling, or failure to keep a client's funds separate from the attorney's own funds.

    • Use of a client's funds by the attorney for his or her own purposes.

    • Failure to reduce to writing the scope of the representation and the basis or rate of the fee and expenses for which the client will be responsible. If the basis of the fee is a contingency, both attorney and client have to sign a written contingent fee agreement. A contingent fee agreement is an agreement between an attorney and a client stating that the attorney's fee depends in whole or in part on the lawyer's success on behalf of a client.

    • Engaging in work for a client notwithstanding the existence of a conflict of interest, as defined and prohibited by the Rules of Professional Conduct.
How to File a Complaint

Complaint forms can be obtained by telephoning the Attorney and Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP), as explained above, or by submitting a written complaint using the form available below. Because of the confidentiality requirements complaints cannot be accepted via e-mail. Send complaints to the address below.

Office of the Bar Counsel
99 High Street
2nd Floor
Boston, Massachusetts 02110
(617) 728-8750

What Your Complaint Should Contain

In order for the investigation to proceed, it will be necessary that you provide as many facts and as much documentation as possible. Although you may feel certain that the acts complained of constitute misconduct, a simple statement that misconduct has occurred is not enough. You should set forth the facts surrounding your complaint. Include dates, the nature of the legal matter, and specific information about what you feel the attorney did wrong. If you have documents, including a fee agreement, court papers, letters or notes, that you think are helpful to understand the complaint, send copies. DO NOT SEND ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.

Clients should not hesitate to ask their attorneys about anything concerning their cases, including costs and fees. Before filing a complaint, the client should try to discuss the problem candidly and openly with the attorney. Clients may become dissatisfied with their attorneys for many reasons, but unless there is a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct, discipline will not be imposed.

If you have any doubts about whether to proceed, ACAP will try to answer any questions you may have. The address and telephone number are listed above.

What Happens When You File a Complaint

After screening by ACAP, complaint forms are submitted to the Office of the Bar Counsel for investigation. Sometimes a complaint does not fit within the area that is regulated by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Please read the section entitled What Not to Expect, below. If Bar Counsel determines that your complaint falls into one of these categories, the complaint will be closed and notice will be sent to you. You may request review of this decision by a member of the Board. However, there is no appeal from a decision by the Board not to bring disciplinary charges against an attorney.

If an attorney is found to have committed a relatively minor infraction of the rules, the attorney may receive an admonition or be required to participate in a remedial program. If there appears to be serious misconduct, the matter is referred to a Hearing Committee appointed by the Board. All the evidence is reviewed and considered. Each side is heard. The Hearing Committee then submits a written report to the Board with its recommendation as to discipline.

If Bar Counsel and the attorney reach agreement as to discipline, the recommendation may be submitted directly to the Board without referral to a Hearing Committee.

The Board may accept or modify the recommendation for discipline. If the Board feels it needs additional information, it may return the case to the Hearing Committee for further hearing, or conduct hearings of its own before making a final determination.

What Sanctions are Available

The types of discipline that may be imposed by the Board are:

  • Admonition, which is a private discipline. A record is made of the admonition, but the name of the attorney is not made public.

  • Public Reprimand, which means that the discipline is public but the attorney is not suspended. Public reprimands are published in Lawyer s Weekly and other publications, and are compiled in the bound volumes of the Massachusetts Attorney Discipline Reports.

If the Board determines that more severe discipline is required, it sends the matter, together with its recommendation, to the Supreme Judicial Court. The types of discipline that only the Court can impose are:

  • Suspension, which means that the attorney may not practice law for a period of time. Suspension can be for either a specified term or for an indefinite period. An attorney who is suspended for an indefinite period may not apply for reinstatement for five years.

  • Disbarment, which means that the attorney's license to practice is revoked and the attorney's name is stricken from the list of licensed attorneys. An attorney who is disbarred may not apply for reinstatement for eight years.

Sometimes one of the above disciplines may be imposed with terms of probation. An attorney may also resign from the bar as a disciplinary sanction, but only with the Court's consent.

Decisions of the Board and the Court with respect to public discipline are released for publication. Decisions and orders are available on this website.

What to Expect

Complaints are not dismissed lightly, nor are they prosecuted without justification. The protection of the public is paramount in considering every complaint filed.

You may expect the following.

  • A prompt reply from the Office of the Bar Counsel acknowledging receipt of your complaint.

  • A fair and impartial investigation. This means listening not only to your side of the story, but to the attorney's side as well. It also means that whatever independent investigation may be necessary in order to establish the facts will also be conducted.

  • As speedy a disposition as is possible of your complaint. Depending on the complexity of the matter, this can take from a month to a year or longer.

  • To be called as a witness, if necessary, and to provide additional information for the investigation of your complaint.

  • That even though a matter is resolved between you and your attorney, your continued cooperation may be necessary to discipline the attorney.

  • Disciplinary action, commensurate with the offense, against an attorney found to have violated the Rules of Professional Conduct.

  • Advice concerning where you may go for assistance if the subject of your complaint does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Board.

  • To be kept informed of the progress of the investigation and to be notified of the final disposition of the complaint.
  • There are no charges or other costs to you by the Office of the Bar Counsel or the Board of Bar Overseers.
What Not to Expect

The Office of the Bar Counsel and the Board of Bar Overseers do not provide legal services or advice. If you wish to be referred to an attorney you might contact the Massachusetts Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service at www.masslawhelp.com or at (617) 654-0400. The attorneys at the Office of the Bar Counsel do not and cannot represent you personally in the matters of which you complain.

Although an attorney may take corrective steps to avoid disciplinary action after he or she receives a complaint, the Board of Bar Overseers does not have power, for example, to compel an attorney to refund money or return files. The Board has only the power to discipline attorneys or recommend discipline to the Court.

You may have a civil claim against your attorney that can be pursued in the courts, a fee dispute that can be resolved by a bar association fee arbitration board, or a claim that will be considered by the Clients' Security Board. The Office of the Bar Counsel will tell you where to explore these other possibilities in appropriate cases.

Confidentiality

Under Supreme Judicial Court rules, the Board and Bar Counsel must treat complaints as confidential matters. Until the attorney has been served with a petition for discipline instituting formal charges or has agreed to be formally disciplined, the Board and Bar Counsel may not publicly disclose that the complaint has been filed. Certain narrow exceptions to this prohibition exist. You are immune from liability based on your complaint.