Bar Counsel’s Office Department Report

Joseph N. Pirtle

The work of Bar Counsel’s Office is primarily divided into four categories: (1) investigating and prosecuting alleged violations of the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct; (2) assisting with claims to the Client Assistance Fund; (3) assisting the Board of Commissioners, the Character and Fitness Committee, and the Reasonable Accommodations Committee in admissions and licensing matters; and (4) answering ethics questions.

Grievance Investigations and Discipline

In 2022, Bar Counsel’s Office received 346 grievances against attorneys. We review all grievances to determine if there are any violations of the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct. If our investigation establishes that there were no violations of the Rules or if there is insufficient clear and convincing evidence to prove that a violation has occurred, the grievance will be dismissed.

If we find clear and convincing evidence of a violation of the Rules, the attorney may receive private discipline in the form of an informal admonition or a private reprimand or, in some cases, formal charges may be filed. If the attorney receives private discipline, the grievant will be informed of the sanction in writing but information concerning an attorney’s private discipline is not released to the public by Bar Counsel’s Office. Grievances resulting in formal charges can involve sanctions ranging from public reprimand to disbarment.

Bar Counsel’s Office filed eight cases seeking formal discipline in 2022. Most of those cases resulted in stipulated resolutions with the attorneys.

Client Assistance Fund

The Client Assistance Fund is available to compensate clients who have suffered damages due to the “dishonest conduct” of an attorney. The claims typically involve theft, embezzlement, or the attorney’s failure to return unearned fees to the client. Bar Counsel’s Office assists the Client Assistance Committee in administering claims, attending meetings, and preparing Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Recommendations regarding Client Assistance Fund claims. In 2022, the Client Assistance Fund received 25 claims, which is unusually high.

Admissions and Licensing

Bar Counsel is the lawyer for the Board of Commissioners, the Character and Fitness Committee, and the Reasonable Accommodations Committee. In this role, Bar Counsel’s Office assists with admissions and licensing investigations and prepares Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Recommendations following those investigations. Bar Counsel’s Office also represents the Board of Commissioners in admissions and licensing petitions filed with the Idaho Supreme Court, including requests to waive a particular Idaho Bar Commission Rule and review of denied admissions or licensing requests.

The details of those admissions and licensing matters are confidential under the Idaho Bar Commission Rules.

Ethics Questions

Three attorneys (Joe Pirtle, Julia Crossland, and Caralee Lambert) assist Idaho State Bar members with ethics questions. In 2022, Bar Counsel’s Office answered 1,047 calls or emails from attorneys seeking guidance on the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct. The most common questions involved conflicts of interest, attorney’s responsibilities upon termination of the representation, and whether attorneys are bound by client strategy decisions.

Assisting attorneys with ethics questions before there is a possible violation or harm to the public is obviously preferable. Ethics inquiries remain confidential in the hopes that Bar members will be more comfortable contacting Bar Counsel’s Office to ask ethics questions. Bar Counsel’s Office does not, however, provide advice on substantive legal issues.

Joseph N. Pirtle joined Bar Counsel’s office in April 2022. Prior to that, Joe was a shareholder and civil litigation attorney with Elam & Burke in Boise. Joe received his B.S. in business finance from the University of Idaho in 2001 and his J.D. from the University of Idaho College of Law in 2004.