The Office of Bar Counsel (OBC) was established in 1974 by the Supreme Judicial Court under S.J.C. Rule 4:01 as an independent administrative body to investigate and evaluate complaints of unethical conduct against attorneys. In the event that the OBC concludes that an attorney has engaged in unethical conduct under the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, the office will bring charges before the Board of Bar Overseers for adjudication. If misconduct is found, the Board either will impose discipline itself or recommend to the S.J.C. that it impose discipline depending on the circumstances.
The mission of the OBC is to protect the public from unethical conduct by attorneys and to preserve and enhance the integrity and high standards of the bar. The OBC is committed to the efficient and effective performance of its mission and strives for fairness in all its dealings with the public and the bar.
The OBC serves the public in the following ways:
- investigates and responds to complaints of unethical conduct by attorneys;
- prosecutes attorney misconduct cases before the Board of Bar Overseers and the Supreme Judicial Court; and
- provides information on the bar disciplinary process and alternative remedies.
The office provides information and support to the bar in the ethical practice of law in the following ways:
- participates in bar association and continuing legal education programs on ethics and practice management;
- provides articles on ethics issues on its website and to bar journals;
- works with the Board and the Supreme Judicial Court or its committees to develop and modify the rules of professional conduct and disciplinary procedural rules for attorneys; and
- provides guidance to attorneys faced with ethical problems and attorneys seeking reinstatement following suspension or disbarment.
One of the ways that the OBC serves the bar is by providing guidance to attorneys who are confronted with ethical questions that attorneys are having difficulty answering. To this end, the office staffs an ethics helpline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between the hours of 2:00pm and 4:00pm. Attorneys may reach the helpline by calling (617) 728-8750. The OBC does not provide formal ethics advice during these calls, and the guidance offered is not binding on either the caller or the OBC, but the OBC tries to identify the relevant ethics rules. For formal ethics opinions, attorneys should contact the Massachusetts Bar Association (see Ethical Inquiries at massbar.org).
Contact Us Office of the Bar Counsel 99 High Street 2nd fl Boston, Massachusetts 02110 Phone: (617) 728-8750
BAR COUNSEL Rodney S. Dowell FIRST ASSISTANT BAR COUNSEL Richard C. Abati Dorothy Anderson DIRECTOR, ATTORNEY AND CONSUMER ASSISTANCE PROGRAM Christine P. Deshler ASSISTANT BAR COUNSEL Luz A. Carrion Alison Mills Cloutier Robert M. Daniszewski Sherri Gilmore Pamela A. Harbeson Christine Helsel David A. Kluft Adam C. LaFrance Heather L. LaVigne Kristy A. Lavigne Kenneth W. Luke Joseph M. Makalusky Amanda E. Muros-Bishoff
The Attorney and Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP) is part of the Office of the Bar Counsel of the Board of Bar Overseers. ACAP is a source of assistance to people with questions or problems with their Massachusetts attorney. When someone calls the Office of the Bar Counsel with a grievance concerning an attorney, a member of the ACAP staff will respond promptly to that inquiry and attempt to identify the problem. Many problems can be resolved by providing information, calling the attorney, or suggesting alternative ways of dealing with the dispute. A complaint form will be sent immediately where serious unethical conduct may be involved.
What can ACAP do?
What follows are some typical problems and what ACAP will do to help:
- "My attorney will not return my telephone calls."
If the client wishes, ACAP will call the attorney and ask the attorney to contact the client. If the client does not wish ACAP to communicate with the attorney, ACAP will make suggestions to the client for a self-help plan.
- "I do not think my attorney is working on my case."
Where appropriate, ACAP will send a complaint form to the client. Where the problem appears to be short-term or involve a communication problem, ACAP will offer to call the attorney for an update on the status of the case. If the client does not wish ACAP to contact the attorney, ACAP will make suggestions to the client for a self-help plan.
- "My former attorney will not release my files."
ACAP will call the attorney to help obtain the release of any material to which the client is entitled.
- "Can my attorney withdraw from my case?"
ACAP will discuss the limitations on a attorney's ability to withdraw and the steps the attorney must take before doing so. ACAP will also refer the client to attorney referral services when appropriate.
- "My attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel in my criminal case."
If the case is over, ACAP will generally advise the caller that such claims should in the first instance be decided by a court. The caller will be asked to inform the Office of Bar Counsel should the court issue findings or an order suggesting misconduct on the part of the attorney. We will also refer the client to legal services that can assist in the filing of such a claim.
- "I want to file a complaint against the judge on my case."
The Board of Bar Overseers and the Office of Bar Counsel do not have jurisdiction over complaints concerning judges. Thus, the caller will be referred to the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct, 11 Beacon Street #525, Boston, MA 02108, and (617) 725-8050. See http://www.mass.gov/cjc/.
- "My attorney's bill is too high."
Fee disputes, except in rare circumstances, are outside the jurisdiction of the Board of Bar Overseers and the Office of the Bar Counsel. ACAP will attempt to clarify the fee arrangement for the client, urge the client to compare the bill to the work the client knows was accomplished, and suggest that the client write to or meet with the attorney to attempt to resolve the dispute. The client may also be referred to the Massachusetts Bar Association Fee Arbitration Board (see http://www.massbar.org/for-attorneys/fee-arbitration) or to small claims court.
- "I am afraid to fire my attorney because I paid a fee in advance."
ACAP will explain that the attorney is obligated to return the unearned portion of any retainer promptly. The client is advised to ask for an itemized bill and to request the immediate refund of any unearned fees and the return of the file when the attorney is discharged.
- "My spouse's divorce attorney said things that are not true to the judge."
ACAP will explain that unless the attorney made willful misrepresentations of fact or law, this claim should be raised with the caller's own attorney since there may be nothing the Board of Bar Overseers or the Office of the Bar Counsel can do. However, the caller is advised that if there is proof establishing that the attorney engaged in deliberate misrepresentations to the court, a complaint form will be sent.
What ACAP cannot do.
ACAP deals with problems that can be resolved without extensive investigation and the disciplinary procedures of the Board of Bar Overseers and the Office of the Bar Counsel. When a caller alleges serious misconduct, such as the mishandling of client funds, ACAP will provide a complaint form and urge the caller to file it with the Office of the Bar Counsel. Although ACAP cannot give legal advice, when a caller needs legal assistance, we will direct the caller to other resources for assistance.
How does ACAP assist attorneys?
ACAP helps attorneys by providing an informal means of addressing minor complaints from dissatisfied clients and others. We also give information and suggestions about effective resolution of disputes in an ethical and professional manner.
Most problems with clients can be prevented by returning the client's calls promptly, keeping clients informed about the status of the case, written fee agreements, regular billing practices, meeting deadlines, and managing a caseload efficiently.
In some cases, ACAP will refer attorneys to Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, peer assistance and practice management assistance through local bar associations, and the Office of the Bar Counsel ethics hotline for information and help.
NOTE: THE ACAP PROGRAM IS NOT A "LAWYER ASSISTANCE PROGRAM" AS DEFINED IN RULE 1.6(c) OF THE MASSACHUSETTS RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT.
As an arm of the Office of the Bar Counsel, ACAP is governed by the Supreme Judicial Court rules, which mandate that the Office of the Bar Counsel and the Board of Bar Overseers keep complaints confidential unless and until a complaint for public discipline is filed. Thus, ACAP cannot disclose that someone has contacted us about an attorney. However, ACAP's connection to the Office of the Bar Counsel also requires that ACAP's records be available to Bar Counsel and that ACAP advise Bar Counsel if it receives information indicating that an attorney is engaging in serious misconduct. A consumer who makes a written or telephone inquiry to ACAP is immune from liability based on the inquiry. This immunity does not extend to public disclosure by the consumer of information contained in or relating to the complaint.
How can I get more information?
Call ACAP at (617) 728-8750 any Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The fax number is (617) 728-8875. You may also write to the following address:
Attorney and Consumer Assistance Program
Office of the Bar Counsel
99 High Street, 2nd floor
Boston, Massachusetts 02110
* ACAP does not accept inquiries over the Internet.