“A lawyer, being a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”  Preamble, Section (1), South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct.  

A grievance, or complaint, may be brought against an attorney if he or she violates the attorney’s Oath of Office, the Rules of Professional Conduct, criminal laws, or other rules governing the lawyer’s conduct.

Anyone can file a disciplinary complaint against a lawyer alleging the lawyer has engaged in misconduct or is incapacitated. Reasons for filing a complaint against a lawyer include:

  1. Mishandling and misappropriation of funds or other property held by attorney lawyer for a client or third party. 
  2. Accepting a fee to do legal work, and not doing the work within a reasonable length of time.  A “reasonable length of time” depends upon the type or complexity of each case. While some matters may be concluded in a relatively short period of time, others may require up to several years to complete.
  3. Accepting a case the lawyer is not professionally competent to handle. For example, a complicated tax matter might require an attorney experienced with tax law, not a criminal lawyer. A complicated child custody case might better be handled by an attorney experienced in family law, not an attorney who focuses on probate matters. 
  4. Breach of confidentiality by the lawyer or the lawyer’s staff. 
  5. The lawyer’s violation of criminal or civil laws. This includes willful misrepresentation, fraud, deceit, bribery, extortion, misappropriation, theft, conspiracy or solicitation of another to commit a “serious crime”, as defined by the rules.
  6. Lawyer’s failure to respond to calls, emails or letters.
  7. Not returning a client’s file or documents upon the client’s request at the conclusion of the representation.
  8. Dishonesty to a client, a court or others.

This is not an exhaustive or exclusive list. 

The Supreme Court’s lawyer disciplinary process cannot address:

  1. Routine disputes about fees. The South Carolina Bar has a Resolution of Fee Disputes Board to address most of these complaints.
  2. Personality conflicts between a client and his lawyer.
  3. Allegations that a criminal conviction or sentence was unfair.  Complaints about a mistake that happened during the trial trial are usually addressed through an appeal. Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in a criminal case are addressed through the post-conviction relief process although ineffective assistance of counsel may sometimes also involve allegations of lawyer misconduct.
  4. A lawyer not obtaining a favorable outcome in a legal matter. For example, complaints growing out of a domestic relations case when the client did not get the result the client wanted do not necessarily involve allegations of lawyer or judicial misconduct.
  5. Collecting a bill owed by a lawyer. The courts handle cases like that.
  6. An honest disagreement over how a case should be handled.

If you have a  a complaint about a lawyer—which you believe can be proven and documented clearly and convincingly by obtainable evidence—write or call:

Office of Disciplinary Counsel
Post Office Box 12159 
Columbia, South Carolina 29211
(803) 734-2037

What happens after you file  a complaint? 

The Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel conducts an investigation. The matter will then be concluded in some fashion, either with a dismissal, a confidential disposition, or public discipline. Confidential dispositions include a letter of caution to the lawyer or a confidential admonition. Some disciplinary investigations are concluded with discipline the Supreme Court imposes with the lawyer’s consent. In other matters, the Supreme Court’s Commission on Lawyer Conduct will hold a public hearing at which the Disciplinary Counsel and the lawyer will present evidence. The Commission will then make a recommendation to the Supreme Court on the disposition of the matter. The Supreme Court makes the final determination in all public disciplinary matters. The Supreme Court can adopt an agreement for discipline, impose a sanction, or dismiss the complaint.

The “discipline” imposed can range from a confidential admonition to disbarment. In rare cases, the Supreme Court may order the lawyer to return to the client a portion of fees paid or may order other types of financial restitution.

Key points to remember include:

You are not required to have a lawyer assist you in filing a grievance. You may do so by letter to the Commission or the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, but you must have hard facts and evidence which investigators can get and use to support your complaint. 

If you file a complaint you will not become a party to the proceedings. All disciplinary investigations are confidential unless a public hearing or public sanction is required; however, the attorney will receive a copy of your complaint, and you will be notified when the matter is concluded. Each investigation takes its own time, and sometimes can take years to resolve. This is especially true if there are related criminal proceedings in process related to the matter. 

This information was prepared to give you some general information on the law. It is not intended as legal advice about any particular problem. If you have questions about the law you should consult a lawyer. If you do not know a lawyer, you can call the South Carolina Bar Lawyer Referral Service weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The number is 799-7100 in Richland or Lexington Counties, and 1-800-868-2284 from other parts of the state.