If the Bar staff investigation reveals possible ethics lapses, bar counsel can send the case to a Florida Bar grievance committee. Proceedings before grievance committees are defined as “non-adversarial.” This means that the accused lawyer does not enjoy the due process rights typically accorded in an adversarial proceeding. Because of this, the grievance committee level presents both peril and opportunity to the responding attorney. This also means that the risks of self-representation are heightened by missteps or missed opportunities.
Florida Bar grievance committees are made up of local attorneys and non-lawyers. Over 75 grievance committees are situated throughout the state, and the Florida Bar publishes the members’ names. One or more investigating member will be assigned to the case. A committee’s investigating member may speak with the lawyer and others and investigate the matter further to his or her satisfaction. The committee chair can conduct hearings and issue subpoenas. Eventually the grievance committee will either terminate the case, refer it for prosecution by finding probable cause, or recommend an alternate disposition. Various intermediate outcomes are possible at this level, such as diversion to ethics school.
In a Florida Bar complaint, knowing what to say—or not say—is a nuanced matter requiring fine judgment and discernment, in addition to thoroughly knowing the options. Because practicing the law is a privilege and not a right, the privilege against self-incrimination cannot typically be invoked. As in criminal cases, Florida Bar attorney disciplinary proceedings have critical stages. The sooner an accused lawyer is represented by an effective Florida Bar defense attorney, the better.
If the committee finds probable cause, it refers the case for prosecution. Bar counsel will draft and file a formal complaint in the Supreme Court of Florida. The Bar’s filing and service of the formal complaint initiates the referee stage, a formal, adversarial proceeding. Click the link to learn about the referee stage.