IL ARDC: Attorney discipline complaints down for 3rd year, most involve lawyers 50 or older

By Karen Kidd | May 16, 2016

CHICAGO – While disciplinary complaints among Illinois attorneys are down overall for the third year in a row, a trend likely to continue, more than half of such complaints in 2015 were aimed at older, seasoned attorneys, a newly released report says. 

"Yes, we're always a suspect class," James Grogan, deputy administrator and chief counsel for the state Supreme Court's Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC), said with a laugh.

The Illinois ARDC's newly released report for 2015 said that 62 percent of Illinois attorneys disciplined last year were between the ages of 50 and 74.

Grogan, alluding to his own experience that includes 35 years investigating and prosecuting hundreds of charges of lawyer misconduct cases, said attorneys can pick up some bad habits as they grow older in the high-stress profession. The Illinois ARDC does not speculate on such causes, only the numbers, but there have been studies that indicate attorneys suffer higher rates of alcohol and drug addiction compared to less stressful professions, Grogan said.

"A lot of times, when you hit that magic age of 50, things just start to corrode," he said.

All the usual life changes, such as their kids leaving home, also can bleed over into an attorney’s professional life, leading to greater vulnerability to errors and unprofessional conduct, Grogan said.

"It's a constant, all around the country," Grogan said. "The older, more seasoned, more experienced attorney is the one more likely to have these problems."

In addition to age, the Illinois ARDC report said of the attorneys disciplined in the state last year, 85 percent of the disciplined lawyers were male; 61 percent were sole practitioners; 45 percent ended up disbarred or suspended until further court order; 37 percent had 30 years or more in practice; 27 percent suffered one or more identified substance abuse or mental impairment issues; and two were out-of-state lawyers sanctioned for engaging in the unauthorized practice of law in Illinois.

All of that was only a small part of the state ARDC's report. Overall, the number of complaints against attorneys is down for the third straight year, according to the report. With 2016's halfway point almost here, Grogan said he has enough data already that indicates that trend will continue.

The report also provides additional brow-raising information about Illinois attorneys compared to the previous year. For instance, the number of grievances in 2015, 5,648, was a 4.6 percent decrease compared to 2014, marking the third consecutive year that number has declined.

The number of disciplinary complaints against Illinois attorneys before the Hearing Board in 2015, 81, marked a 27-year low, while the 130 cases concluded by the Hearing Board was a significant reduction compared to the previous year, according to the report. Of those, 77 percent were for alleged fraudulent or deceptive activity, 63 percent were concluded without the Hearing Board needing to issue a report and recommendation and 39 percent of cases were concluded by discipline on consent, the report said.

While those decreases clearly are reflected in the numbers, Grogan said he hesitates to say why exactly those decreases are happening. The report, he said, is about numbers more than analysis.

"You're raising questions that we have questions about," he said.

Grogan did speculate that at least some of the variance may reflect the changing legal environment in Illinois, which will naturally bring out a change in the annual report's numbers compared to previous years.

"Disciplinary action is cyclical," he said. "It ebbs and flows."

Meanwhile, the numbers of attorneys registered in Illinois is rising while the number of grievances and other forms of attorney discipline in the state is falling, according to the report. However, Grogan cautioned those numbers don't reflect all of the attorneys practicing in the stage. Attorneys from outside of Illinois also practice in the state but are not always counted in all parts of the report, he said. He added there also may be some very difficult-to-measure improvements in the quality of the grievances and other discipline that are pursued, which itself could drive down overall numbers.

"But we can't say that for sure," he said.

There were 94,128 lawyers registered to practice in Illinois last year, a 1.5 percent increase over the previous year, according to the report. Of those, 64,749 or 69 percent were actually living and working in Illinois; 45,487 or 70 percent were in Cook County; 29,378 or 31 percent were based outside Illinois; 49,250 or 52 percent had malpractice insurance; 47,614 or 81 percent were in private practice with a trust account maintained an Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA); 31,362 performed 2,055,987 hours of pro bono legal services; and 17,565 made $14,802,544 in monetary contributions to pro bono legal services organizations.

The Illinois ARDC is the administrative agency that regulates licensed Illinois lawyers. Its mission, according to its website, is "to promote and protect the integrity of the legal profession, at the direction of the Supreme Court, through attorney registration, education, investigation, prosecution and remedial action." Its report, issued annually since the Illinois ARDC's founding in 1973, usually comes out toward the end of April.

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