In accordance with current lawyer regulations, an unsuspecting client’s lawyer could be under investigation for serious violations, but they’d never know it. That’s because the Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR) is not allowed to tell the public about these investigations until they reach a conclusion.
Slowly but surely, momentum is building for the OLR to reform their attorney discipline system. Chief Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson along with justices Patrick Crooks, Michael Gableman and David Prosser have all publicly called for the system to be reviewed.
Currently, if the OLR has reason to believe a lawyer is engaging in misconduct, they’ll investigate that lawyer, but do nothing to warn unsuspecting clients. Worse yet, these investigations take approximately 400 days, while some even take years.
Meanwhile, these same attorneys continue to practice as if nothing ever happened. In 2011, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report indicated that more than 135 Wisconsin attorneys had criminal records.
In Mequon, Attorney Sarah Laux has been accused of stealing as much as $2 million from her clients. The OLR has been investigating her since 2011, but the public wasn’t told until February 2014. As that time passed, clients who may have thought twice about hiring an attorney facing such accusations ended up hiring her without knowing the circumstances.
To confront the issue, Abrahamson assembled a volunteer committee to review the disciplinary system in 2012 and they made several suggestions.
They recommended disclosing the names of lawyers under investigation for serious investigations, yet still practicing. They also recommended lifetime disbarment for egregious violations such as stealing from clients. Currently, the worst that can happen is a five-year license revocation.
Although the attorney disciplinary system has not yet undergone the reform it desperately needs, more and more people are calling for the OLR to protect the public from shady lawyers.