Three Tips (and a Bonus!) for Navigating an Illinois ARDC Complaint or Investigation

Most lawyers are keenly aware of Illinois’ Attorney Registration Commission’s (ARDC) role in the attorney registration, licensing, and continuing education processes.  However, many are unaware of the processes involved in the investigation and prosecution of attorney discipline matters.  Here are three tips (and a bonus!) for things you should consider if you are faced with a complaint to or Request for Investigation from the ARDC.

  1. Don’t delay, but don’t fire off an emotional response.

Rule 53 of the Rules of the ARDC requires lawyers practicing within the state of Illinois to respond to ARDC’s requests for information in writing within 14 days.  Complaints filed with the ARDC should always be taken seriously and handled promptly.  Most often, the ARDC is willing to provide an extension of time to respond if requested.  Ignoring the inquiry an make a minor matter something much more problematic.

However, it is important to avoid getting angry or emotional and firing off an immediate response that is not well thought out.  The response needs to be thorough and completely accurate.  If you respond immediately with emotion and anger, you are more likely to forget a key detail and the emotion will come through in your response.

  1. Notify your malpractice carrier.

Eighty-seven percent of Illinois attorneys in private practice have malpractice insurance.[1]  As a result, it is critical that you evaluate your insurance policy to determine whether you are required to notify the carrier of any form of complaint or inquiry.  Don’t view your carrier as an adversary.  They can likely provide a lot of assistance (and may even provide you with counsel) and have experience guiding their insureds through what can be a confusing and difficult process.  You pay insurance premiums for a reason.  When you need your carrier, reach out to them.

  1. Evaluate your need for counsel.

When an attorney’s conduct, work, practice, and livelihood are called into question, it expectedly evokes an emotional reaction.  While the attorney may feel the complaint or investigation is baseless, it must be taken seriously.  Matters before the ARDC at various levels may involve the ARDC rules, subpoenas, pleadings, written and oral discovery, hearings, and more.  Experienced counsel can provide an objective viewpoint, which is of the utmost importance in attempting to obtain the best results.

Bonus: Evaluate your practice area.

The top two practice areas involving ARDC regulatory action are Criminal Law and Domestic Relations.[2]  These are areas of the law where clients are unlikely to have a “winning” outcome, regardless of the results. If you practice is such an area—one that is inherently adversarial, emotional, stressful or upsetting—it is important to evaluate your risk of potential ARDC complaints and/or legal malpractice litigation.

While, the ARDC has the ability to convene investigations on its own motion, the majority of ARDC complaints are initiated by former clients and/or subsequent counsel on behalf of former clients who are upset with the results (or lack thereof) obtained by counsel for the money they paid in fees.  As a result, clients who feel unsatisfied with the results you obtain for them are more likely to demand a refund of fees, fail to pay legal fees, file a complaint with the ARDC, or seek an attorney to review the case for potential legal malpractice action.  It is always important to evaluate your risks and take action by evaluating your malpractice insurance to protect you and your practice moving forward.

[1]  2019 ARDC Annual Report Highlights: available at: https://www.iardc.org/AnnualReport2019Highlights.pdf

[2] Id.

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Kerri Forsythe

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