The Office of Attorney Ethics acts as the investigative and prosecutorial arm of the Supreme Court of New Jersey in discharging the Court's constitutional responsibility to supervise and discipline New Jersey attorneys.
The OAE assists and manages 18 district ethics committees and 17 district fee arbitration committees throughout the state. Additionally, the OAE itself handles serious, emergent and complex disciplinary prosecutions. The OAE also administers the Random Audit Compliance Program, which monitors the recordkeeping responsibilities of private practice law firms.
Lawyers who commit unethical conduct in this state are subject to discipline by the Supreme Court. Such discipline can range from an admonition, the least serious discipline, to a reprimand, censure, suspension from practice, or permanent disbarment from practice. The attorney disciplinary process is usually begun by the filing of an Attorney Grievance Form with the secretary of one of the Supreme Court's 18 district ethics committees.
To contact a district ethics committee secretary call the toll- free Ethics/Fee Arbitration Hotline at Phone: 1-800-406-8594. Be prepared to provide the five digit zip code of the attorney's address.
When they enter the practice of law, all lawyers obligate themselves to uphold the law and to abide by the Rules of Professional Conduct adopted by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Those who violate these standards for professional conduct are subject to discipline, ranging from admonition to disbarment. Because disciplining a lawyer is a serious matter, it takes evidence -- proof of unethical conduct -- to justify disciplinary action. Just as it takes proof before any member of society may be penalized for wrongdoing, the action of the lawyer must constitute unethical conduct before the lawyer is disciplined. An honest disagreement about how a case should be handled -- or should have been handled -- does not constitute unethical conduct, even if the outcome of the case is disappointing.
A mistake does not necessarily constitute unethical conduct either. If a mistake causes a loss, the client may be able to recover the loss in a civil suit against the lawyer for money damages. But a simple mistake or error in judgment by itself is not unethical conduct. There are situations that a client may find most annoying, but that do not constitute unethical conduct. An example would be the lawyer's failure to consult with the client prior to writing every letter or prior to filing every document in the client's case, or perhaps the lawyer's failure to respond to all of the client's telephone calls inquiring about the progress of the case. If you have a problem that may be the result of inadequate communications or some misunderstanding, it may be that the problem can best be resolved by a frank talk with your lawyer. Tell your lawyer of your dissatisfaction, and ask for a full explanation of the matter involved. Such a discussion will often either eliminate the problem or lead to its solution.
Finally, the disciplinary process cannot correct a lawyer's personality problems. Allegations that a lawyer was rude, used bad language, or failed to pay a bill cannot generally be investigated by the disciplinary system.
While it is impossible to list all of the acts or omissions which may constitute unethical conduct, here are a few examples of prohibited conduct which, if proven, may be cause for discipline.
If you believe that your lawyer has engaged in unethical conduct, you should call the toll-free hotline number 1-800-406-8594. If you enter the five-digit zip code of the attorney's office, you will be connected to the district ethics secretary to request an Attorney Grievance Form.
Fee matters are not ordinarily a basis for discipline of a lawyer because they usually do not involve questions of unethical conduct. Furthermore, our court rules require that fee disputes first be pursued with district fee arbitration committees before they can be considered by ethics committees. Some fee disputes may be the result of an overcharge by the lawyer. Others, however, may result from your misunderstanding the basis for the fee and the various factors that go into the charge made by a lawyer for services. Today all lawyers are required to explain in writing to new clients the basis or rate of the fee to be charged. This must be done near the time the lawyer first accepts the case. Both you and your lawyer should discuss any questions regarding fees at the initial conference so that you both have a clear understanding of what will happen in your case and how much the case will cost. Despite discussions as to the basis or rate of fee, sometimes misunderstandings develop and a controversy arises. Fees, like any other disputes over the value of services, may be resolved by court actions.
As an alternative to court action, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has created 17 district fee arbitration committees, which will resolve, at the clients request, through binding arbitration, disputes concerning alleged unreasonable fees. If you desire assistance by a fee arbitration committee in determining whether the fee charged by your lawyer was reasonable, call the toll-free hotline number 1-800-406-8594 and you will be connected to the district fee arbitration secretary to request fee arbitration forms.
In October 1983, the Supreme Court of New Jersey established the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) to manage all district ethics and fee arbitration committees throughout the state. In addition to broad-ranging administrative and managerial powers, the OAE also has jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute complex and some other ethics matters. It handles exclusively all ethics cases in which the lawyer is also a defendant in any criminal proceeding. Additionally, the OAE takes any emergent action that may be necessary to protect the public by applying to the Supreme Court for immediate temporary suspensions. This may occur, for example, when a lawyer has been convicted of a serious criminal violation, or where there is substantial proof that client trust money has been stolen. Likewise, the OAE manages statewide all district fee arbitration committees, which hear client disputes over lawyers' bills for services. The OAE also administers the Supreme Court's Random Audit Compliance Program, which conducts audits of attorneys' trust and business accounts to see that proper records of clients' funds and attorneys' fees are maintained by all lawyers. Finally, the OAE manages the Trust Overdraft Notification Program, which provides for the active review of overdrafts of attorney trust accounts as reported by New Jersey financial institutions."
The primary purpose of attorney disciplinary proceedings is to protect the public by imposing discipline on a lawyer who has behaved in an unethical manner in handling a client's case. Neither the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) nor any of the district ethics committees can provide private legal service or advice to any person filing a grievance. Furthermore, if you have lost money as a result of the matter involved, the money cannot be recovered through disciplinary proceedings. If you seek to recover money damages, you should consult another attorney to discuss bringing a civil suit against the original lawyer for money damages. Ethics committees are empowered to recommend that an attorney who is guilty of unethical conduct be disciplined; however, these committees are not courts and cannot award money damages to any party.
Discipline of lawyers may take one of several forms, depending on the particular circumstances and the severity of the offense: admonition, reprimand, censure, suspension from practice, or disbarment.
The procedures followed in processing a grievance against a lawyer are outlined here so that you may understand what is involved. You should know that the cost of the disciplinary system is financed totally by annual fees paid by lawyers. No taxpayers' monies are used. You should also be aware that members of the district ethics and fee arbitration systems, both attorneys and public members, are volunteers who donate their time and services to improve the profession.
By Supreme Court rule, all grievances must be in writing and filed with the secretary of the district ethics committee for the district in which the lawyer has his or her main law office. In the event the committee determines that an actual conflict of interest exists in any case, either the member who has the conflict may be disqualified from participating in the case or, in appropriate cases, the matter may be transferred to another district. Ethical conduct is a personal obligation of a lawyer and therefore a grievance must be filed against a specific lawyer and not against a law firm. Because there are currently 17 district ethics committees throughout the state, you are advised to telephone the Ethics/Fee Arbitration Hotline at
1-(800)-406-8594. After you enter the zip code of the attorney's office address, you will be transferred to the appropriate district ethics committee secretary to request grievance forms.
When you complete and file an Attorney Grievance Form, you must provide sufficient detail about the facts of your grievance such as names and addresses of all witnesses, dates, and pertinent documentation to serve as a basis for further investigation. Failure to provide important facts and copies of important documents may result in a delay in the consideration of the grievance while the documentation is obtained.
After receiving an Attorney Grievance Form the secretary will review the form to determine whether the grievance should be docketed. To help evaluate the matter the secretary may speak or write to you or the lawyer for further information. If the secretary determines that the grievance involves a substantial fee dispute involves pending civil or criminal litigation, or meets other specific criteria outlined in our court rules, the secretary will decline to docket the case. If the facts alleged in the grievance would not constitute unethical conduct even if proven (for example, where the lawyer is simply alleged to have been rude or used bad language, or where the lawyer did not pay a bill), after consultation with a designated public member of the Committee, the secretary will decline to docket the case. There is no right of appeal from these determinations. In such event the secretary will notify you of the reason that the case was declined and will provide you with a copy of the specific court rule or other authority mandating declination.
On receipt of your grievance alleging facts about the conduct by a lawyer which, if proven, would be unethical, the secretary of the committee dockets the case and assigns the matter to a lawyer-member for investigation necessary to determine the validity of the allegations. The Court's goal is to complete standard investigations within six months and complex ones within nine months of the date assigned. A written report of investigation is then submitted to the Chair of the committee, who determines whether there is adequate proof of unethical conduct. If the Chair finds that there is no reasonable prospect of proving unethical conduct by clear and convincing evidence, the Chair directs the secretary to dismiss the matter and to provide you with a copy of the report of investigation. In such event, the investigative stage of the matter is at an end. You have the right, however, to appeal the dismissal to the statewide Disciplinary Review Board. The Board's address is provided in the secretary's letter of dismissal. If, however, the Chair determines that there is a reasonable prospect of proving unethical conduct by clear and convincing evidence, a formal complaint is prepared. The complaint is served on the lawyer, who is required to file an answer within 21 days of service. This step begins what is known as the hearing stage.
Additionally, in cases where both the Committee and the OAE agree that the attorney is guilty of "minor misconduct," and the attorney admits to the unethical conduct, the case may be diverted, i.e., treated as a non-disciplinary matter, in order to correct or remedy the cause of the "minor misconduct." There is no appeal from the OAE's decision to divert a case.
Complaint cases are generally tried before a hearing panel consisting of three members, composed of two lawyers and one public member. The procedure in disciplinary hearings is similar to that in court trials. A court reporter makes a record of the entire proceeding. Testimony is given under oath. Attendance of witnesses and the production of records may be compelled by subpoena. The hearing is open to the public.
After the hearing is concluded, the panel deliberates and takes one of the following actions:
To see a listing of all statewide pending charges for the current month, click here. For a detailed explanation of the information contained on this listing, go to the Public Charges.
In the event that your docketed grievance has been dismissed by a committee after the investigative or hearing stage, you have the right to appeal by requesting appeal forms in writing from the statewide Disciplinary Review Board (referred to as the "Board") at P.O.Box 962, Trenton, NJ 08625. There is no charge for an appeal. The Board is composed of nine members (both lawyers and members of the public), who donate their time on a voluntary basis. The Board may uphold the action of the local committee, reverse the decision and impose discipline or return the matter for further proceedings.
When a hearing panel finds misconduct warranting discipline, the panel's report and recommendation are forwarded to and considered by the Board. If after reviewing a matter in which an admonition has been recommended, the Board determines that an admonition is adequate discipline, it issues an appropriate letter of admonition. When a hearing panel has filed a report recommending stronger discipline, oral argument is routinely scheduled before the Board. The lawyer may appear in person and may be represented by counsel. A representative of the committee appears in support of the hearing panel report. No witnesses are permitted at this oral argument and no testimony is taken. However, the argument is open to the public. If the Board determines that an admonition, reprimand, censure, suspension, or disbarment should be imposed, its written decision must be reviewed by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. The Board forwards a copy of its decision to you and to the lawyer.
Disbarment can be decided only by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. In all other matters, the recommendation of the Board becomes final on entry of an Order by the Supreme Court, unless the Supreme Court has granted one of the parties leave to appeal. In cases where the Supreme Court grants oral argument, the Office of Attorney Ethics represents the public interest before the Court, which issues a final order disciplining the attorney or determining that no discipline is required.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey has held that persons who file grievances "may speak publicly regarding the fact that a grievance was filed, the content of that grievance, and the result of the process." Since disciplinary officials are required by Rule 1:20-9(h) to maintain the confidentiality of the investigation process and may neither speak about the case nor release any documents, until and unless a formal complaint is issued and served, you must also keep confidential any documents you may receive during the course of the investigation of your grievance.
To protect the integrity of the investigation process, we recommend that you, as well as all witnesses, not speak about the case other than to disciplinary officials while the matter is under investigation. So long as you maintain the confidentiality of the investigation process, you have immunity from suit for anything you say or write to disciplinary officials. However, the Supreme Court has stated that you "are not immune for statements made outside the context of a disciplinary matter, such as to the media or in another public forum." R.M. v. Supreme Court of New Jersey, 185 N.J. 208 (2005).
Grievances against lawyers are not dismissed lightly, nor are they prosecuted without justification. The protection of the public is paramount in considering every grievance filed. You may expect...
You should not expect that your grievance will be decided solely on the basis of what you claim to have happened, just as, in fairness to you, the lawyer about whom you complained cannot expect that the matter will be decided solely on the basis of his or her version. The final decision must depend upon the weight of all the available evidence and testimony.
You should not expect, as a result of your grievance, that you will receive any money or reimbursement of loss from the ethics committee. You must seek recovery of any monetary loss you may claim was caused by a lawyer, from that lawyer, either voluntarily or as a result of a lawsuit. As explained below, when money has been lost due to dishonest conduct, the Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection may reimburse the client's loss. Attorney disciplinary proceedings, however, are restricted to the question of whether a lawyer's conduct was ethical, and, if it was not ethical, the appropriate level of discipline.
Neither should you expect the disciplinary system to provide you with private legal advice or legal services, either in place of the services you expected from your lawyer, or against the lawyer. The disciplinary system acts only to enforce the Rules of Professional Conduct upon lawyers.
Occasionally a grievance against a lawyer involves dishonest conduct. If you believe that money or other property belonging to you has been taken by your lawyer, in addition to filing a grievance, you may also file a claim with the Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection (the "Fund") after also notifying the appropriate county prosecutor of the incident.
It is important to note that the Fund is a separate committee of the Supreme Court with its own distinct purpose, jurisdiction, and procedures. Just as the district ethics and fee arbitration committees cannot pay claims, the Fund cannot discipline attorneys or settle fee disputes. Nor may the Fund pay claims based upon the negligence or malpractice of an attorney. For such cases you may consult a private attorney to decide if you may bring a civil lawsuit to collect damages. You must prove a loss suffered through the dishonest conduct of an attorney with whom you had an attorney-client or fiduciary relationship. The attorney against whom the claim is made must be either suspended or disbarred, unless deceased or otherwise unavailable, for the Fund to have jurisdiction.
The Fund is administered by six Trustees (five attorneys and one public member) all of whom donate their time and talents. The Fund receives no tax revenues but rather pays its awards out of money paid by New Jersey attorneys themselves each year as a demonstration of commitment to maintaining public confidence in the legal system. If you have questions or if you wish to obtain a claim form, please call the Fund at 609-292-8079 or write to Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection, P.O. Box 961, Trenton, New Jersey 08625.
By Supreme Court rule, ethics grievances must be filed in the district where the attorney maintains an office for practice. There are 17 district ethics secretaries. Click here for a complete listing.
Those involved in the attorney disciplinary system appreciate your interest. They seek fair, impartial, and vigorous enforcement of the Rules of Professional Conduct in the interests of the public, clients, and the legal profession.
This page contains a monthly listing of all public charges pending against attorneys following investigation. These charges are accusations. Attorneys are presumed innocent until and unless found to have committed unethical conduct after hearing.
Under Supreme Court Rule 1:20-9(c), after a grievance is investigated, the matter will become public on the filing of public charges in the forum of a formal ethics complaint, a stipulation waiving the filing of a formal complaint, a motion for reciprocal discipline (from another state or agency), or a motion for final discipline (based on a criminal charge) or the approval of a motion for discipline by consent. In the case of a formal complaint, that document becomes the basis for a public hearing at which evidence is presented. Thereafter, a hearing panel or special ethics master (in some complex cases) decides whether or not the attorney has committed unethical conduct. Stipulations, motions for final or reciprocal discipline and motions for for discipline by consent proceed directly before the Disciplinary Review Board.
The Office of Attorney Ethics publishes a list of all pending hearings throughout the state on a monthly basis.
Hearings are grouped on the list by the district in which they are handled.
A formal complaint is an allegation and accusation of unethical conduct. Every attorney is presumed to be innocent of all allegations until and unless the attorney is found to have acted unethically after a hearing before a panel of a district ethics committee or a special ethics master. Furthermore, no finding of unethical conduct by either such a panel or special master is final until that finding has also been reviewed and decided by the statewide Disciplinary Review Board and, in some cases, the Supreme Court of New Jersey.
The public hearing list contains basic information about the formal charges against a New Jersey attorney, including the primary person in charge of deciding the matter and the general nature of the charges.
The public hearing list is sorted by the district in which the matter is being processed. A list of the secretaries shows this geographic breakdown. Cases handled by the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) are listed as "District XIV." In addition to listing all hearings on complaints filed by the OAE, the last page of the public hearing list also shows Motions for Final Discipline (Criminal Convictions of New Jersey attorneys) and Reciprocal Discipline (Discipline from another jurisdiction where a New Jersey attorney is also admitted). All of these cases are filed with and heard by the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB). The DRB meets monthly in Trenton, New Jersey. Further information about these cases can be obtained directly from the DRB at 609-292-1012.
In reviewing the public hearing list, the following definitions may be helpful:
Anyone wishing to review the public portion of a file in which a formal complaint is filed may do so as follows:
To minimize the possibility of delay, advanced notification of such visits is recommended.
Copies of public records of formal complaints are available for the following fees, paid in advance:
For Letter Size Page ... $0.05 per page
For Legal Size page ... $0.07 per page
(Mailing charges will be added where necessary.)
Payment must be made in advance by check or money order.
Generally, where workload permits, copies will be made within seven business days after receipt of payment in full.
You may determine whether a New Jersey attorney has been disciplined from 1984 through the last full calendar year. To do so, you must be able to view documents in PDF format. PDF documents preserve the look and feel of the original print documents.
This file contains a listing of all public discipline beginning with the most current year shown and ending with the oldest year shown in that file. Within each year, all attorneys are listed alphabetically.
Once you have opened the above file, the easiest way to find an attorney's name is to select "Ctrl + F" on your keyboard and then type in the full name of the attorney with or without punctuation. For example, for 2001, the name "Richard R. Thomas III" should be typed in full without a period . Once the name has been found, you may select "Ctrl + G" on your keyboard to see if there are any additional disciplinary sanctions against the same attorney. When you have found the last listing for the attorney, you will receive a message that "no other" matches of that name have been found. If you type in a name that does not exist in the file, you will receive a message reporting "no matches" of anyone with that name.
If you do not know the full name of the attorney, you may use the "Find" feature with the last name only. However, if you use a common name, such as "Ross", you will have a more difficult time finding the attorney because "Ross" will also find any text, such as "gross" that contain the same letters. On the other hand, if the last name you are searching is somewhat unique (such as "Purzycki"), you will find the attorney quite easily.
For final public disciplinary histories prior to 1990, please call the Office of Attorney Ethics at 609-530-4008. For pending disciplinary charges, please see the Public Charges page.
Some disciplined attorneys may share the same name. It is CRITICAL, therefore, that individuals using these disciplinary histories ensure that they have correctly identified the lawyer. The Office of Attorney Ethics is not responsible for any coincidence in names of disciplined attorneys and other non-disciplined attorneys as a result of individuals having the same or similar names.
The Office of Attorney Ethics Web Site is provided as a public service. Information is believed to be accurate but is not guaranteed. The online summaries provided on this Web Site are not intended to be complete records of actions involving attorneys disciplined by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Inquirers should review the full text of any Supreme Court orders or opinions. Further case information can be obtained only from the Supreme Court Clerk's Office at 609-984-7791
This page contains the complete "State of the Attorney Disciplinary System Report" issued by the Office of Attorney Ethics for the last full calendar year. The report is in Adobe Acrobat PDF format.
New Jersey attorneys are required to provide new clients with either (1) a written fee agreement or (2) a letter summarizing the fee arrangement. This must be done when, or shortly after, the attorney first accepts the case. Even if you have been regularly represented by the attorney in the past, you should discuss at the initial conference any questions regarding the fees which the attorney may charge you over the course of the representation, so that there will be a clear understanding by both the attorney and you of (1) the services you are hiring the attorney to perform, and (2) how much the attorney will charge you to perform those services and to pay related costs. Despite agreements and discussions about fees, issues may arise about the size of the attorney’s bill. Fee disputes, like any disagreement over the value of services, may be resolved by a lawsuit.
As an alternative to such a lawsuit, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has established the fee arbitration process as a low-cost and efficient method to resolve such disputes. District fee arbitration committees throughout New Jersey are maintained by volunteers, with the goal of resolving, through binding arbitration, disputes over attorney fees. Fee arbitration is impartial and inexpensive, and the arbitration process is typically resolved more quickly than a court case. The fee arbitration process may be less stressful for all involved, since it is less formal and designed to bring matters towards their conclusion in a straightforward, time-saving, and efficient way.
What should you do if your attorney's bill seems unreasonable? As a first step, ask your attorney to explain why the bill is higher than you expected. You may find out the case was more complicated and took more time than you may have expected, or that the costs of the representation were more than anticipated. Alternatively, the attorney may agree that the bill should be adjusted.
If discussion does not resolve the issues you raise about the attorney’s bill, you may either seek relief from a Court (which would include the filing of a lawsuit), or commence fee arbitration.
An attorney must send you formal notice of your right to seek fee arbitration before the attorney may file a lawsuit to recover a fee. In that notice, the attorney is also required to list the name, address and phone number of the district fee secretary, and to advise you that you have 30 days within which to file the Fee Arbitration Request Form with the district fee secretary. The attorney must wait 30 days from the date of notice before filing the lawsuit. In most cases, if you promptly choose to take your dispute to arbitration, the attorney must arbitrate. If you do not take steps to file the Attorney Fee Arbitration Request Form within 30 days of receiving pre-action notice from the attorney, you lose your right to seek relief through the fee arbitration system.
Forms and Links: If you have Acrobat Reader, you may print a Request for Fee Arbitration Form (to be filled out by the client to commence fee arbitration) or an Attorney Fee Response Form (to be used by Attorneys to file a response to a client’s Request Form). Send the original and five (5) copies to the district secretary whose office is in the county in where the attorney practices law.
Call the district secretary with any questions about the process, or call the Statewide Fee Arbitration Coordinator at 609-530-3426.
The six sets of the Attorney Fee Arbitration Request Forms (the original and 5 copies of all forms, including attachments) MUST be accompanied by a non-refundable $50 administrative filing fee. The check must be made payable to the “Disciplinary Oversight Committee.” When the attorney thereafter submits the Attorney Fee Response Form, the attorney must also submit the original and five copies, along with the $50 filing fee. Both parties are required to pay the filing fee. If for any reason you are unable to pay the filing fee, you should call the Fee Arbitration Unit in the Office of Attorney Ethics (609 530-3426) to be provided with a separate form to fill out (an indigency form) to have the filing fee waived.
The Request for Fee Arbitration will not be docketed (formally listed as a proceeding) by the district fee secretary until the secretary receives the $50 check from the client, or until the indigency form has been received, reviewed and the fee waiver granted. If the check is not received within a short period of time, or if the check bounces, the Court Rules specify that the client’s claim must be dismissed with prejudice. If the attorney fails to send in the $50 check with the Response form within the time limits, the attorney may be barred from participation in the case, but the attorney will nonetheless be bound by the results of the arbitration.
Please note that the case may be assigned a file number by the Office of Attorney Ethics, while the paperwork is being processed, so that the case documents may be scanned and entered into the database maintained by that office of all matters submitted for fee arbitration. The district secretaries, after reviewing the submissions, have the final authority under Court Rules to determine questions about jurisdiction and whether the case should be formally docketed.
Once the client chooses to pursue fee arbitration by signing the binding arbitration form, the client has thirty days within which to withdraw the request. Thereafter, the client will be bound by the fee committee's jurisdiction. The attorney is also bound by the proceeding. Nonetheless, if, at any time, both the client and attorney reach agreement for the dismissal of the fee arbitration, then the matter may be dismissed. Once the client requests fee arbitration, both the attorney and the client agree to comply with the decision of the fee arbitration committee, and they are each bound by the results of the proceeding.
The fee arbitration procedure is not available in every case. The fee committees do not have jurisdiction to determine cases in which six years have passed since the last attorney services were rendered. A fee committee may, in its discretion, decline to arbitrate a fee in which the total legal fee (not including costs) exceeds $100,000. The fees in some kinds of cases, such as worker's compensation cases, are determined by the court and are not subject to fee arbitration. A fee committee may further decline to arbitrate disputes in which persons who are not parties to the arbitration have an interest that would be substantially affected by the arbitration, such as where someone other than the client will have to make payment on a fee award. Similarly, when the primary issues in dispute raise substantial legal questions, in addition to the basic fee dispute (such as claims of legal malpractice), the fee committee may decline to hear the case. In such situations, you would still have a right later to file a lawsuit for legal malpractice. See R. 1:20A-2(c). Finally, if the attorney gives you proper, written notice of your right to select fee arbitration, but you fail to secure and file the appropriate form within 30 days of receiving notice, the fee committee must decline to accept the matter.
While fee committees do not have the authority to award you money damages for legal malpractice, they are required to determine whether the fee charged was reasonable. In assessing whether the fee was reasonable, the hearing panel must consider the factors specified under Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(a).
The Court Rules specify the time periods allowed for the attorney to submit the Attorney Fee Response, along with the check for the $50 filing fee, after the attorney receives from the district fee secretary the client’s Attorney Fee Arbitration Request Form. The attorney must return six copies of the form for filing with the fee secretary, and send an additional copy to the client. If the attorney fails to submit the response or the available supporting documentation within the allowed time limits, the attorney may be barred from further participation in the proceeding or from offering evidence at the hearing.
The burden of proof to demonstrate the nature of the fee agreement and the reasonableness of the fee is on the attorney. All basic documentation necessary to carry this burden should be submitted with the Attorney Fee Response. This documentation includes (1) a copy of the written fee agreement; (2) all correspondence confirming or explaining the fee arrangement; (3) the attorney's time records; (4) all interim bills and the final bill, including costs; and (5) a statement of all amounts paid on account. Prior to the hearing, neither the client nor the attorney has the right to make formal inquiries (to demand discovery) or to take depositions. If the attorney believes that any other attorney or member of a law firm is responsible for, or entitled to, any portion of the fee, it is the attorney's responsibility to see to it that that attorney or firm is made a party to the arbitration proceeding, and the attorney must notify the district secretary and follow the procedures set forth in the Court Rules. See R. 1:20A-3.
Since 1979, fee arbitration committees have been composed of both attorneys and public members who volunteer their time. Most fee arbitration cases are heard before panels of three members, composed of two attorneys and one public member (or three attorneys, if a public member is unavailable). If the total amount of the fee charged is less than $3,000, the hearing may be held before a single attorney member of the fee committee. All fee committee members are volunteers who have been directly appointed by the Supreme Court of New Jersey to serve without compensation.
After the attorney files the Attorney Fee Response, the committee will schedule a hearing with at least 10 days’ notice to the parties. Arbitration hearings are private and formal; however, they do not require observance of strict courtroom procedure and evidence rules. Ordinarily, both the client and the attorney appear at the hearing without legal representation. In other words, you do not have to hire another attorney to assist you in the fee arbitration proceeding. You may do so if you choose, nonetheless.
Only the parties and witnesses may attend fee hearings, so if you will need the assistance of any other person (for example, a translator or interpreter), you must ask the district secretary in advance, no later than when you receive the hearing notice.
All witnesses have to swear or affirm to tell the truth. The proceedings will typically not be recorded. Be aware that, when you are given notice of the time, date and place for the arbitration hearing, it is your obligation to contact all of your witnesses and to insure their appearance at the hearing. If the witness is important and will not appear voluntarily, you may ask the fee secretary to issue a subpoena. You may also compel the production of documents through subpoenas. You are responsible for personally serving any subpoenas you request. If you are asking for a subpoena to be issued, you should make that request in writing to the district fee secretary no later than when you receive the hearing notice.
Any documents on which either party will rely at the hearing should be submitted in advance of the hearing (typically as attachments to the Request form or the Attorney Response, and provided to the adverse party). The parties should also bring to the hearing all of those materials, such as all letters, documents or records in any form which either party may ask the hearing panel to consider. The hearing panel or single arbitrator must decide the matter promptly. Except in unusual cases, the Arbitration Determination will be decided within 30 days following conclusion of the hearing. The parties will receive the written Arbitration Determination by mail from the district fee secretary.
The amount of the fee as determined by the fee committee is binding on both parties and it is final. There is no unconditional right to appeal any Arbitration Determination. The Court Rules specify the following as the limited grounds for appeal:
This limited appeal may be taken within 21 days after receipt of the fee committee's written Arbitration Determination. The appeal forms may be obtained from the Disciplinary Review Board (the “DRB”) at Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, P.O. Box 962, Trenton, New Jersey 08625, or download the appeal form from the DRB - Frequented Requested Information page. The appeal form, properly completed, must be returned to the DRB within 21 days. Absent compelling reasons, the Board will not consider untimely requests for, or returns of, Notice of Appeal forms. The timely filing of a Notice of Appeal automatically stops the collection of any judgment obtained based upon the fee committee's Arbitration Determination. All limited appeals are considered by the DRB on the written record. The decision of the DRB on any appeal is final.
If the Arbitration Determination directs that the attorney must pay a specified sum to the client, the attorney is required to make such payment within 30 days of receipt of the Arbitration Determination (unless the matter is on appeal). Without a hearing being conducted, the parties may also reach agreement by Stipulation of Settlement to resolve the fee dispute. In either case, if the attorney fails to make the payment that is owed to the client, the client should contact the Office of Attorney Ethics 609-530-3426, which is empowered to file a motion with the DRB seeking a recommendation that the attorney be suspended from the practice of law until the attorney complies with the fee determination.
After the same 30-day period within which payment must be made, or after the appeal has been decided by the DRB, the parties may also seek to have the Arbitration Determination entered as a judgment by a Court, by following the procedures specified by Court Rules 1:20A-3(e) and 4:67. But neither party may re-litigate the matter.
By Supreme Court rule, fee proceedings must be conducted in the district where the attorney maintains an office for practice. There are 17 district fee secretaries. Click here for a list of addresses and telephone numbers for the district fee secretaries.
Fee arbitration proceedings are confidential, and the Court Rules spell out the restrictions on disclosure of the proceedings. See R. 1:20A-2(c)(2)(B) and R. 1:20A-5. Under Court Rules, once you file for fee arbitration, you are required thereafter to keep all communications and records regarding the fee matter confidential. You may not breach this confidentiality by disclosing your fee dispute to persons other than members of the fee arbitration system, except to discuss the case with other witnesses or to consult an attorney.
The New Jersey Supreme Court has established the attorney fee arbitration system to provide clients with a fair, efficient, economical, and expeditious means of resolving fee disputes, and to foster public confidence in the legal profession. Accordingly, all involved with the fee arbitration committees welcome your participation in the process.
The Random Audit Compliance Program conducts periodic audits of law firms that engage in the private practice of law in the state. The purpose of the program is to insure that law firms maintain required records of clients' funds and attorneys' fees.
The information on this webpage highlights the general operation of the Random Audit Program (RAP), as well as some of the more important accounting requirements imposed on all attorneys who engage in the private practice of law in this state.
It is not a substitute for reading New Jersey Court Rule 1:21-6 and Rule of Professional Conduct 1.15. Every attorney is obligated to read these rules and comply with them in accordance with case law and advisory opinions interpreting them, and in accordance with generally accepted accounting practice.
The Institute for Continuing Legal Education can be contacted at 908-249-5100; publishes a book entitled Trust and Business Accounting For Attorneys that contains more substantial detail together with samples of all required journals, ledgers, and reconciliation formats.
Since 1981, the New Jersey Supreme Court has operated a program for random audits of attorney trust and business account records to determine compliance with the Supreme Court of New Jersey's mandatory recordkeeping rule, R.1:21-6, and ethics rule RPC 1.15 ("Safekeeping Property"). The Random Audit Program is administered through the Supreme Court's Office of Attorney Ethics.
The central purpose of the New Jersey Random Audit Program is the education of New Jersey attorneys on the proper method of compliance with their recordkeeping and ethical responsibilities under R.1:21-6 and RPC 1.15.
A secondary purpose underlying random audits is deterrence. Just knowing that there is an active auditing program is an incentive, not only to keep good records, but also to avoid temptations to misuse trust funds.
Finally, there is the purpose of detection of misappropriation. Since the random selection process results, by definition, in selecting a representative cross-section of the Bar, a few audits inevitably uncover some lawyer theft. In those few instances the deterrent effect is heightened by the strong discipline imposed by our Supreme Court, namely the mandate of virtually automatic disbarment for the knowing misappropriation of client's funds as set forth in the case of In re Wilson, 81 N.J. 451 (1979).
An annual random selection of audit candidates is made from the statewide list of licensed attorneys using the law firm as the entity subject to audit, rather than individual attorneys. Every attorney in private practice is regarded as a member of a law firm. A law firm may consist of one or more attorneys, and the law firm identifier is the 10 digit "main" office telephone number. That number is captured for all private practice attorneys annually as part of the Attorney Registration Program.
The selection process is accomplished by a computer program that annually selects approximately 500 audit candidates using a tested random selection methods with is documented in its ability to produce truly random results. As a result, every law firm, regardless of size, has an equal chance of being selected for an audit.
Once an attorney or law firm is selected, the attorney or firm is provided with written notice 10 days to two weeks in advance of the scheduled date.
Generally, only one auditor is assigned to a matter. Occasionally, two or more auditors are assigned if a large firm or other complicating feature is involved.
It is preferable for the attorney to be present at the audit. If the attorney cannot be present, a responsible person knowledgeable about the books and records must be available.
On arriving at the law office, the auditor conducts an initial interview with the attorney or responsible person left in charge. Detailed information about the firm's recordkeeping procedures is secured and recorded on a Random Audit Questionnaire form. The auditor also conducts a review of the firm's trust and business account books and records in order to determine compliance with the rule requirements. The review culminates in a reconciliation of the attorney's trust account (or accounts) as of the date of the most recent bank statement.
Any recordkeeping deficiencies are noted by the auditor on a Recordkeeping Deficiencies Checklist which contains a brief description of the most commonly found recordkeeping deficiencies. The auditor provides a copy of the checklist to the attorney or person left in charge, and, in an exit conference, discusses with that individual the corrective actions that should be taken to remedy any deficiencies which have been found.
All law firms randomly audited are provided at the audit with a booklet, Outline of Record Keeping Requirements Under RPC 1.15 and R.1:21-6, developed by the Random Audit Staff. This outline includes a summary of the substantive requirements, and also contains samples of all required receipts and disbursement journals, client trust ledgers and reconciliation formats.
Shortly after the audit, the attorney is formally advised by correspondence of the results. If the audit revealed no problems, a closing letter is forwarded that acts as the final disposition of the matter. If minor deficiencies were discovered, a deficiency letter is sent to the attorney describing the shortcomings that require corrective action. The source of information for the deficiencies is the aforementioned Recordkeeping Deficiencies Checklist.
Within 45 days ater the date of the deficiency letter, the attorney is required to submit a response addressing the corrective action taken for the cited recordkeeping deficiencies. On receipt of an acceptable response from the attorney, the matter is closed. If the attorney does not respond, the matter may be referred to the Office of Attorney Ethics for disciplinary action.
If, at any point during the audit process, major deficiencies are discovered, such as misappropriation of client's trust funds, the matter is referred immediately to the Office of Attorney Ethics for disciplinary action. Historically, such referrals are made in less than 1% of the audits conducted.
RPC 1.15 ("Safekeeping Property")imposes upon all New Jersey attorneys the duty to safeguard the funds and property of clients coming into their possession in the practice of law. These assets must be kept separate from the attorney's personal and business assets, and not be used for any purpose whatsoever, other than as directed by the client.
The attorney is specifically obligated to notify a client promptly when client funds and property is received; to provide the client with appropriate accountings; and to disburse promptly to the client all funds and property to which the client is entitled. Non-cash property, such as bonds and securities, should be clearly identified as client property and secured in the attorney's safe or safe deposit box.
All attorneys who engage in the private practice of law in New Jersey are required to maintain at least two bank accounts: an attorney trust account and an attorney business account. In addition, R.1:21-6 clearly defines the type of accounting records attorneys are required to keep, and imposes the requirement that these records must be fully reconciled with one another at least monthly.
It is a special bank account, usually a checking account, into which must be placed all funds which are entrusted to the attorney's care while the attorney is acting in a legal representative capacity on behalf of a client.
An attorney trust account should not be used for funds which an attorney receives while acting in any special fiduciary capacity, such as executor, guardian, receiver or trustee; these funds are to be placed into separate fiduciary accounts.
Funds that are entrusted to the attorney's care that belong partly to a client and partly to an attorney, presently or potentially, must also be deposited into the attorney trust account. The attorney's portion may be withdrawn when due, unless the client disputes the withdrawal after receiving proper notice of the attorney's bill. In that event, the disputed portion must remain in the trust account until the dispute with the client is resolved.
An attorney may have one account, or several, depending on need.
They must be maintained in a financial institution located in New Jersey and approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey, which annually publishes a list of such approved institutions. In order to be approved, a financial institution must agree to notify the Office of Attorney Ethics whenever an attorney's trust account check is presented against insufficient funds. A financial institution is defined as being a national or state chartered bank; a savings bank; savings and loan association; or a credit union.
The account must include the prominent designation, "Attorney Trust Account", and the checks and deposit slips for the account must be imprinted with that title.
Withdrawals from an attorney trust account must be made to named payees, and not to cash. Only attorneys admitted to practice in New Jersey are permitted to sign attorney trust account checks.
An attorney may deposit a minimal amount of personal funds into the attorney trust account to pay service charges and other fees incurred in connection with the account. The limit suggested by the Random Audit Program is $250. These funds must be recorded on a ledger and all service charges properly reflected there.
No other personal funds of the attorney may be deposited into the trust account because it would constitute active commingling of personal funds with trust funds. Moreover, earned legal fees must be withdrawn promptly from the trust account when due. Aggregating large sums of earned legal fees for extended periods of time constitutes passive commingling. Both active and passive commingling are unethical practices.
Attorney trust accounts may be interest-bearing, but the attorney may never be the recipient of interest earned on the portion of funds belonging to clients or other persons being held in the trust account. All interest or other income earned on an attorney trust account belongs to the clients or persons whose money generated the interest, or to the IOLTA Fund.
"IOLTA" is an acronym for "Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts", and is a fund managed by trustees appointed by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Pursuant to R.1:28A, all attorneys who practice in New Jersey must register with the IOLTA Fund, and if the circumstances outlined in that rule apply to them, they must establish an IOLTA attorney trust account. The IOLTA Fund collects the interest on these accounts statewide, and the revenue is used to fund civil legal services for the poor, and legal programs to improve the administration of justice. Further information may be obtained from:
IOLTA Fund of the Bar of New Jersey
New Jersey Law Center
One Constitution Square
New Brunswick, NJ 08901-1500
All legal fees received by an attorney for professional services that have been rendered must be placed into an attorney business account. The business account is also traditionally used to pay the operating expenses of a law office. Attorneys may maintain more than one business account. The checks and deposit slips on these accounts must include the designation of either "Attorney Business Account", or "Attorney Professional Account", or "Attorney Office Account". In contrast to a trust account, a non-attorney (for example, a secretary) may be a signatory for a business account.
If an explicit understanding has been reached with a client that a fee retainer for legal services, or advanced costs for court fees and litigation expenses, are to be placed into an attorney trust account until such time as the fee is earned or the cost is incurred, then that is where these funds must be deposited. Otherwise, these funds may be maintained in either a trust account or a business account.
An attorney has an ethical obligation to refund unearned legal fees or unspent advanced costs to a client whenever the attorney completes or withdraws from representation, or the attorney is discharged by the client.
A basic trust accounting system consists of a trust receipts journal, a trust disbursements journal, and a trust ledger book containing the individual ledger accounts for recording each financial transaction affecting that client's funds.
Each individual client ledger account should be maintained as a separate page in the attorney's trust ledger book. At a minimum, each ledger account should reflect the date, source, and a description of each item of deposit, as well as the date, payee, and purpose of each withdrawal.
No specific accounting system is mandated, but R.1:21-6 requires that all financial records be kept in accordance with generally accepted accounting practice. Many practitioners use a manual system consisting of handwritten journals and ledgers. Others use the so-called "one-write" or "pegboard" systems. There are also computer software packages available for law office trust accounting.
Whether it be a trust account or a business account, each should be maintained daily and accurately. All source documents such as duplicate deposit slips, bank statements, canceled checks, and check stubs must be preserved for seven years. An attorney should also preserve copies of records from client files that are necessary for a full understanding of the lawyer's financial transactions with a client.
A running balance must be maintained at all times for all ledgers and checkbooks. The balances in the trust ledger book must be reconciled, at least monthly, with the balances in the trust receipts and disbursement journals, the trust account checkbook, and the bank statements. Records of these montly reconciliations must be maintained for seven years.
Every attorney, or law firm, must maintain, for seven years, certain additional records, including copies of all:
In the event of a dissolution of a law firm, appropriate arrangements must be made for the maintenance of the firm's records, whether by a former partner or the successor law firm.
They are very serious. The knowing misuse of trust funds by an attorney will almost invariably result in disbarment. Major recordkeeping deficiencies, or negligent misuse of trust funds resulting from the failure of an attorney to properly maintain trust account books and records, will result in the imposition of discipline ranging from an admonition to a reprimand or a period of suspension.
This page contains the latest annual listing of all New Jersey financial institutions that have been approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey to be depositories for attorney trust funds.
Set forth below is a list of financial institutions that have filed agreements pursuant to Rule 1:21-6 with the Supreme Court of New Jersey as of February 1, 2017. These institutions qualify as depositories for attorney trust funds. It is anticipated that additional institutions will file agreements throughout the year. Their names will be published periodically in the New Jersey Law Journal. Attorneys having questions as to whether or not a particular financial institution not shown below has filed an agreement with the Court can either:
Charles Centinaro, Director
Office of Attorney Ethics
List of Financial Institutions (PDF Format)
1st COLONIAL COMMUNITY BANK
1st CONSTITUTION BANK
ABACUS FEDERAL SAVINGS BANK
ATLANTIC STEWARDSHIP BANK
AUDUBON SAVINGS BANK
BANCO POPULAR NORTH AMERICA
BANK OF AMERICA
BANK OF NEW JERSEY
BANK OF PRINCETON (THE)
BCB COMMUNITY BANK
BNB HANA BANK, N.A.
BOGOTA SAVINGS BANK
BOILING SPRINGS SAVINGS BANK
BRUNSWICK BANK AND TRUST
CAPITAL BANK OF NEW JERSEY
CAPITAL ONE, N.A.
CENTURY SAVINGS BANK
CHINATRUST BANK (USA)
CITY NATIONAL BANK
CLIFTON SAVINGS BANK
COMMUNITY BANK OF BERGEN COUNTY
COMMUNITY FIRST BANK
CREDIT UNION OF NEW JERSEY
CREST SAVINGS BANK, SLA
CROSS RIVER BANK
DELANCO FEDERAL SAVINGS BANK
ENTERPRISE NATIONAL BANK N.J.
FIRST CHOICE BANK
FIRST COMMERCE BANK
FIRST HOPE BANK, NA
FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF ABSECON
FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF ELMER (THE)
FOX CHASE BANK
FREEHOLD SAVINGS BANK
FULTON BANK OF NEW JERSEY
GARDEN STATE COMMUNITY BANK, a Division of New York Community Bank
GLEN ROCK SAVINGS BANK
GRAND BANK, N.A.
GREATER ALLIANCE FEDERAL CREDIT UNION
GSL SAVINGS BANK
HARVEST COMMUNITY BANK
HAVEN SAVINGS BANK
HIGHLANDS STATE BANK
HSBC BANK USA, N.A.
ISRAEL DISCOUNT BANK OF NEW YORK
LIBERTY BELL BANK
LINCOLN PARK SAVINGS BANK
M & T BANK
METUCHEN SAVINGS BANK
MILLINGTON SAVINGS BANK
MILLVILLE SAVINGS AND LOAN ASSOCIATION
MONROE SAVINGS BANK, SLA
NATIONAL PENN BANK
NEWFIELD NATIONAL BANK
NEW JERSEY COMMUNITY BANK
NEW MILLENNIUM BANK
NEW YORK COMMUNITY BANK
OCEAN CITY HOME BANK
PACIFIC CITY BANK
PENNSVILLE NATIONAL BANK
PNC BANK, N.A.
PONCE DE LEON FEDERAL BANK
PROVIDENT BANK (THE)
ROYAL BANK AMERICA
RSI BANK (formerly Rahway Savings Institution)
SANTANDER BANK, NA
SCHUYLER SAVINGS BANK
SHORE COMMUNITY BANK
SOMERSET SAVINGS BANK, SLA
SPENCER SAVINGS BANK
STERLING NATIONAL BANK
STURDY SAVINGS BANK
SUN NATIONAL BANK
TD BANK, N.A.
TWO RIVER COMMUNITY BANK
UKRAINIAN NATIONAL FEDERAL CREDIT UNION
UNION COUNTY SAVINGS BANK
VALLEY NATIONAL BANK
WELLS FARGO BANK, N.A.
WOORI AMERICA BANK
Revised Feb. 1, 2017