The Illinois Supreme Court disciplined 151 lawyers last year, a 32 percent increase from the 102 lawyers who faced some sort of action from the high court in 2012.
Despite the sharp jump, 2012 was an anomaly due to the Great Recession and a decrease in grievances in prior years, said Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission Deputy Administrator James J. Grogan.
Lawyer regulators around the country saw fewer disciplinary complaints filed against lawyers during 2009 and 2010 — the peak years of the recession, Grogan said.
“There were less attorney-client transactions in those years,” he said. “People could not afford many times to hire a divorce counsel and many couldn’t afford to hire a real estate lawyer because their houses’ mortgages were underwater.”
Of the 151 lawyers disciplined last year, 27 were sanctioned on a reciprocal basis. That means the lawyers practiced in and were disciplined in other states, but were also licensed in Illinois. In 2012, the total was 17 lawyers.
The hike in reciprocal disciplines here last year reflects a national phenomenon, said William J. Martin, an Oak Park attorney who represents lawyers before the ARDC.
“Other states are beginning to take discipline as seriously as Illinois has,” he said.
The Supreme Court disbarred 35 lawyers last year. An additional 66 lawyers were suspended, 14 were suspended with conditions, 17 were placed on probation, 11 received censures and eight were reprimanded.
Most cases begin at the ARDC when complaints are filed by a disgruntled client or other party.
If ARDC lawyers determine that a case should move forward, the matter goes to the inquiry board.
Complaints voted by the inquiry board panels head to a three-member panel of the hearing board, which functions as a trial court.
The ARDC Review Board acts as an appellate tribunal. Most attorney-discipline cases head to the Supreme Court for final resolution.
It takes one to two years for most of the disciplinary cases stemming from formal complaints to reach the high court, Grogan said.
In 2009, the ARDC opened 5,834 investigations and, in the following year, opened 5,617.
During the next two years, the number of investigations rose above 6,000 — with 6,155 in 2011 and a record 6,397 in 2012.
“In our world, we saw a diminishing number of grievances in 2009 and 2010 and that was reflected in the 2012 sanction orders,” Grogan said. “Essentially, there were less cases brought to the court.”
Preliminary figures show that the ARDC opened 5,943 investigations last year.
Thomas P. McGarry, a Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP partner who represents lawyers before the ARDC, said he’s seen more cases involving a rule change the Supreme Court made effective on Sept. 1, 2011. The court amended guidelines for client trust accounts, including a requirement that banks notify the state of client trust account overdrafts.
During a one-week period in November, three lawyers informed McGarry they were under investigation by the ARDC regarding their client trust accounts, which was unusual, he said. Two lawyers became clients.
“That’s a new issue that will probably come up a lot,” McGarry said. “It’s happening a lot more now with mistakes in bookkeeping, mostly.”
In 2012, the first full year the change was in effect, the ARDC opened 421 investigations involving overdraft notifications.
The ARDC is compiling the numbers of investigations related to client trust account overdrafts last year. Officials expect that number fall below the 421 investigations in 2012, Grogan said.
The ARDC continues preparing its comprehensive 2013 annual report, which will be filed with the Supreme Court on or before May 1.
“The court has long expected a high-quality product and has long wanted a detailed report of our operations,” Grogan said of the several months it takes to prepare the annual report.