Written by Tom Gordon
Michael Frisch of Georgetown Law Center has just written an outstanding and frightening post about an attempt by the District of Columbia Bar to quietly takeover control of the budget for the District's bar discipline office from the D.C. Court of Appeals. Taking over the budget for discipline would mean that lawyers would exercise financial control over its own prosecution for disciplinary violations. Professor Frisch calls this "the most dangerous idea in the history of the D.C. Bar." From a consumer perspective, it's hard to disagree.
An inherent problem of self-regulation of any profession, including law, is that practitioners may act in the best interests of their guild, rather than in the best interests of the public. There are many areas where this takes place in the regulation of the legal profession. For example, restrictions on who may provide law-related services, such as document preparation, are justified by the bar as consumer protection measures, but act primarily to prevent consumers from having access to low-cost, non-lawyer service providers who, not surprisingly, might be in direct competition with lawyers.
In disciplinary matters, the bar generally argues that outside regulation is unnecessary because it can act on its own to protect consumers from lawyers who act against their clients' interests. The problem with this argument is that most lawyer disciplinary systems are already weak, administering meaningful discipline in less than two percent of all complaints they receive. Taking away budgetary independence of bar counsel's office will further handcuff the many dedicated lawyers who are trying to police the profession on an already limited budget. Furthermore, it completely undermines the argument that the bar is capable of regulating itself.
I've only been a D.C. bar member for about half as long as Professor Frisch, so I don't have the historical knowledge to confirm his claim that this is "the most dangerous idea in the history of the D.C. Bar," but it would take a remarkably bad idea to top it.
Tom Gordon is Executive Director of Responsive Law.