The State Bar of Trustees approved a revised set of standards for attorney discipline, which are used to determine the appropriate sanction in a particular case and ensure consistency in how cases are dealt with. It marked the first substantive changes since the guidelines were first adopted in 1986.
Although each discipline case is decided on its own facts and circumstances, the new standards make it clear that the presumed sanctions are the starting point for imposing discipline, and the degree of sanction can increase or decrease based on factors in aggravation and mitigation. The standards are not binding but are given great weight by the State Bar Court and the California Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of attorney discipline. Any disciplinary recommendation that deviates from the standards must include clear reasons.
The new standards add several specific offenses: “representation of adverse interests,” “breach of confidentiality,” “fee-splitting with non-lawyers” and “frivolous litigation.” Previously, those were included in one catch-all provision. In addition, the new standards add two new aggravating factors that would warrant greater sanction: “misrepresentation” and “high level of vulnerability of the victim.”
The revised guidelines were developed by a task force appointed in March 2014 and chaired by former State Bar Trustee Karen Goodman.