Department Report: Bar Counsel’s Office

By Joseph N. Pirtle

2023 was quite a busy year for Bar Counsel’s Office. Our work was again 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

There were 399 grievances filed in 2023 against attorneys. This is up from 346 grievances filed in 2022 – a 15.3% increase. In 2023, Bar Counsel’s Office also closed 368 grievance investigations, up from 322 grievances closed in 2022.

Bar Counsel’s Office filed 13 cases with the Professional Conduct Board seeking formal discipline in 2023. Most of those cases resulted in stipulated resolutions with the attorneys.

Alleged violations of the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct are submitted to our office in the form of a “grievance” and investigated by our office. 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 is 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.

Client Assistance Fund

In 2023, the Client Assistance Fund received 14 claims, down from the 25 claims filed in 2022.

The Client Assistance Fund is available to compensate clients who have suffered damages due to the “dishonest conduct” of an attorney. The claims usually 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.

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

In 2023, Bar Counsel’s Office answered 1294 calls or emails seeking guidance on the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct, up from 1,047 ethics questions answered in 2022. The most common questions in 2023 centered around conflicts of interest and attorney’s responsibilities upon termination of the representation.

All three attorneys in Bar Counsel’s Office (Joe Pirtle, Julia Crossland, and Caralee Lambert) respond to ethics questions. We prefer assisting attorneys with ethics questions before there is a possible violation or harm to the public. Ethics inquiries remain confidential in the hopes that Bar members will be more comfortable contacting Bar Counsel’s Office to ask ethics questions. We do not, however, advise 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.