One of the scariest moments an attorney has is when he or she receives a letter from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) advising the lawyer that it is investigating a complaint and that it has passed its initial review stage. The notice letter, called a DB-7 or Request for Statement of Respondent's Position, is important, and you must act promptly to address whatever is in the DB-7.
Most attorneys are not familiar with the disciplinary process in Pennsylvania. In this podcast, Attorney Daniel J. Siegel, who regularly represents attorneys in disciplinary proceedings, explains the basics of the process and outlines what actions attorneys should do to respond to the DB-7 and to protect their licenses to practice law.
This podcast provides basic and practical information about the DB-7 process from a lawyer who understands what is happening. Attorney Daniel J. Siegel represents attorneys throughout all of Pennsylvania, is Chair of the Pennsylvania Bar Association Committee on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility, and his reassuring guidance is helpful, particularly at the beginning of the process, when it is scary to receive a letter from ODC.
Hello, and welcome to the latest edition of the Legal Tech Podcast. I'm attorney Dan Siegel, and I'm here today to talk to you about oh, my God. I received a letter from Disciplinary Counsel. What do I do? The Legal Tech podcast is sponsored by the law offices of Daniel J. Siegel, LLC. We're located in suburban Philadelphia, Havertown, and we represent clients, including attorneys and law firms throughout the state of Pennsylvania. Our other sponsor is Integrated Technology Services, LLC, which assists attorneys and their law firms in improving their workflow and assuring that their workflow and that their work is done appropriately to avoid the potential for what you hear today. Oh, my God. I heard from Disciplinary Counsel. So let me talk to you about the situation, the problem, and what you or someone you know may be thinking. If they see a letter in the mail from Office of Disciplinary Counsel in Harrisburg or one of their other offices throughout the Philadelphia area, the first response you get when you see that letter for the overwhelming majority of lawyers is, oh, no, what's wrong? What did I do? Oh, my God, am I going to lose my license? That's a natural and normal response. But the reality is that simply because you receive communication from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Which is part of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Administrative Offices. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel is there to investigate complaints that attorneys have acted in a manner inconsistent with the Rules of Professional Conduct. The Rules of Ethics. Or have acted in some other way that warrants that they be subject to either discipline or more severe discipline. Such as disbarment. But getting a letter or hearing from Disciplinary Counsel does not mean, oh, my God, you're going to lose your license. So let's take a look at this from the practical standpoint and understand what happens, how you got there, and what you do. Clients generally, who are unhappy may make a complaint to the Disciplinary Board about an attorney's conduct and what happens in those situations, or even if a complaint is made by someone else. Judges can refer matters to Disciplinary Counsel. All different entities may. But the Disciplinary Board is there to first determine whether an attorney has acted in a manner that warrants further action. So a complaint will be filed. It can be filed in paper form or with an online application, and it is referred to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Their process is at first to review the complaint to see if, on its face, it has any basis that could warrant further investigation. In many cases, Disciplinary Counsel will review the complaint and dismiss it out of hand if it does not show or indicate conduct that would warrant their intervention. On the other hand, in some cases, Disciplinary Counsel will review the complaint and investigate. Their investigation can go in many different ways. If it deals with financial conduct, they could be requesting or reviewing bank records. If it deals with handling of a case, they could get court records. They could ask for communications between the attorney and the client or the complainant. There's a variety of different situations that arise that lead to that investigation. There's no time frame on the investigation, so it could move quickly, it could take time. But at that preliminary stage, in most cases, the attorneys do not even know that they are being investigated. And a lot of the time, if there is a complaint that Disciplinary Counsel determines has no merit, an attorney may never know that someone even contacted the disciplinary board. But there are other situations where Disciplinary Counsel, which is one of the attorneys who works in the office of Disciplinary Counsel, reviews the matter and determines that, yes, we need to at least move forward to find out more, to see if this matter warrants further discipline. And in those cases, what attorneys receive is something that we who represent attorneys in these matters are well aware of, that is called a DB-7, and that DB-7 simply stands for Disciplinary Board Seven. It's a letter that is sent. It is formally known as the request for statement of respondents position. And when Disciplinary Counsel, or, as we often call them, ODC, sends that letter to the respondent attorney. It advises the attorney of the complaint and requests a formal statement of the respondent, the attorney's position. So now you are the attorney, and you receive a DB-7. What do you do? Well, it's the same thing that you should do in the overwhelming majority of cases if, before they send a DB-7, you get a call, because sometimes you will receive a call from Disciplinary Counsel who have questions. What you do is you get ready and you want to respond. Now, just as you would tell a client, attorneys who get a DB-7 should take a couple of initial actions. First is they shouldn't panic. Second, they should verify if their malpractice insurance provides coverage for disciplinary proceedings. Many policies include coverage for disciplinary proceedings so that if there is a disciplinary matter, you can contact your carrier, and the carrier will then generally assign an attorney to assist in responding to the request. The DB-7. At times, you are able to request who you want as counsel. So we've had clients who have received these communications, and they've asked to have me as their attorney. In some policies, you do not have that ability, but it depends on the policy terms. So you either have counsel that way, or you should probably seek counsel. Why? Because those of us who are familiar with the disciplinary process understand the process, et cetera. The DB-7 will have a response date, a date by which you must respond with a verified answer, just as you would with a pleading, a verified, signed answer, which is a response to the DB-7. The DB-7 is generally in the form of a letter, with numbered paragraphs, like a complaint or a lawsuit, and the respondent should answer those allegations or those numbered items truthfully. But also it is helpful to, when appropriate, provide an explanation. Because although it may seem that the disciplinary process, if you are involved in it, means you're going to lose your license, it really doesn't. Disciplinary Counsel wants to hear from the attorneys whom they are contacting. They may discover that the attorney recognizes that there was an issue there and corrected it or took corrective action to prevent it from happening. In future cases, there are lots of different scenarios, and until you respond to the DB-7, Disciplinary Counsel has only heard the other side of the story. They haven't heard from the attorney. And that's important because the reality is you the attorney, the respondent, just like anyone who is sued or there are criminal charges brought, whatever has the opportunity, and in this case really should use it to respond to the allegations. Once you respond, and you may need to provide documentation, et cetera, then Disciplinary Counsel will review all of that material, determine if they need more information, determine if the matter can be dismissed at that point, or determine whether there should be further proceedings. Now, at times you will have the ability, or your counsel may, to negotiate some form of discipline where it's clear that discipline is warranted. At other times, discipline may not be imposed at all. And then there are the possibility of full disciplinary hearings. Now, it's important to know that the disciplinary process is private, and that means there's no public indication of it on the disciplinary board's website or anywhere else until or unless there's either some agreed public discipline or Disciplinary Counsel proceeds with proceedings, formal proceedings, which means filing a request, a complaint for further disciplinary action. So, as a practical matter, when you receive or hear from Disciplinary Counsel, yes, you're going to be upset, that's natural, that's normal. But it doesn't mean that the end is near and you are no longer going to be able to practice or that the process is necessarily going to happen in 30 days and, oh my God, no. It is a time to act and to analyze. It's also important to understand that in many cases, if needed, Disciplinary Counsel will grant extensions to respond. But if you do not respond at all, then, as in pleadings and lawsuits, your failure to respond will be deemed an admission of whatever those allegations are. And you could find yourself in more hot water simply because you didn't answer or you didn't answer in a timely manner. And just as we like to explain to clients, yes, we need to do things, we need to meet our deadlines, we need to file papers at a certain time or time frame. It's no different when you're in the disciplinary process. It's important to understand this. It's important to take stock. So as we conclude this podcast, let me talk about what happens and sort of what's your checklist? You've heard from Disciplinary Counsel one, do not ignore the request to investigate whether you have malpractice insurance that will pay for all or part of a defense, and investigate whether you are able to request or select the attorney who will represent you. Next, get together all of the material you have that explains or outlines what happened. Since this is the first time, generally the Disciplinary Counsel has heard your side of the story and then work with counsel to prepare a response to the request. For additional information that Disciplinary Counsel provides the DB-7, the request for statement of respondents position. Then file that within the time frame allotted or extended, make certain that it is verified if there are further requests that occur in the process, after that, comply with them or have your counsel comply with them. And ultimately, if you do end up in a disciplinary proceeding, which means that there is a complaint that is referred to the hearing committee, often known as a DB-3, then your counsel can assist you at that time. I understand that this can be a challenging time. It is scary, even if you think or believe you did nothing wrong. But it happens to attorneys when we hear from Disciplinary Counsel. It does not mean that the sky is falling. It means you have to do what you tell your clients. Take a deep breath and let's look at this one step at a time. I'm attorney Daniel J. Siegel from the law offices of Daniel J. Siegel, LLC in suburban Philadelphia. And this is today's broadcast of the Legal Tech podcast. It's sponsored by my law office and by Integrated Technology Services, LLC. And if you do have questions about these matters, feel free to give us a call. Our number is 610 446 3457, or you can email me at dan@danieljsiegel dot com. Thank you for listening to the Legal Tech podcast.