Private Sanctions, Public Harms?
77 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2022 Last revised: 19 Aug 2022
Date Written: August 2, 2022
The legal profession has a secret. In response to widespread public distrust in the profession’s ability to regulate itself, state disciplinary authorities have undertaken modest efforts over the last several decades to make their activities more transparent. They have opened up their formal proceedings, publicized the identities of sanctioned attorneys, and shared information about their work online. But at the same time, most have quietly continued to resolve cases of ostensibly “minor” and “isolated” misconduct through the use of private sanctions, keeping the identities of disciplined attorneys—and their misconduct—hidden from view.
This Article provides the first comprehensive scholarly contribution on private sanctions to determine whether their continued use can be justified. It presents the results of an original empirical study on disciplinary systems throughout the country over the past twenty years, including five states that have chosen to reveal the details of their private sanctions. Although there are limitations in the conclusions that may be drawn because of the lack of data—itself a problem—it is clear that private sanctions are at times being imposed for misconduct that is anything but “minor” and on attorneys whose conduct is anything but “isolated.” Moreover, there is no persuasive evidence that private sanctions are having their intended deterrent effect or adequately protecting the public from the risk of future harm.
Keywords: legal ethics, professional responsibility, lawyer misconduct, empirical legal studies
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