“Our mandate from the Supreme Court is to protect the public,” said guest speaker Joelle E. Polesky, Esq., a staff attorney from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, as she spoke to students in Professor Larry Barnett
’s professional responsibility class on Friday, November 11th.
An arm of the Delaware Supreme Court, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel regulates the conduct of Delaware lawyers, who are required to conduct themselves in adherence to the Delaware Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct issued by the Delaware Supreme Court. This past June, the Delaware Supreme Court appointed Widener Law graduate Jennifer-Kate M. Aaronson ’95 as Chief Disciplinary Counsel.
Polesky spoke to the students about the Office of Disciplinary Counsel’s role in investigating and sanctioning Delaware attorneys for actions that violate the code of professional conduct. Noting, “Every state has a disciplinary process,” she shared how incidents are referred to the office by a variety of individuals ranging from members of the public to other lawyers and judges. She noted that the vast majority of reported incidents are dismissed following an initial inquiry with the lawyer complained against.
“Sometimes there’s just no basis for the complaint,” Polesky said, adding that the office has to find a “reasonable inference of misconduct” to move the investigation to the next level.
She then covered what happens when complaints do make it past the initial stage. A Preliminary Review Committee of two lawyers and one non-lawyer is convened to examine the case, and at least one lawyer and the non-lawyer must agree for the complaint to move forward. Recommendations from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel are then given to the Delaware Supreme Court, which issues a decision that both sides can make objections too. The court then issues an order, or – in rare circumstances – requests oral arguments.
Polesky also touched on the potential penalties, which range from a dismissal of the complaint with a warning, private admonition, or private probation to public reprimand, suspension, or even disbarment in more extreme cases. She also noted that in some cases of substances abuse where no other substantive misconduct exists, an attorney might receive private diversion into a treatment program.
The actively engaged students asked questions throughout the presentation which touched on topics ranging from the difficulty of investigating colleagues who the attorneys in the office know personally to what happens in the event that none of the office’s attorneys are comfortable taking on a particular complaint due to familiarity with the subject.
Polesky ended the presentation with a look at some cases of attorney misconduct that ranged from the tragic to the bizarre. “Admission to the bar is a privilege, not a right,” she said, concluding, “You are being scrutinized for everything that you do.”