Professionalism in Client Relations (1994-1996)
In 1994, the Commission initiated a second series of Town Hall Meetings focusing on "Professionalism in Client Relations" to include community guests and clients, as well as lawyers and judges. Attracting over 1000 participants, these meetings explored concerns that clients bring to the lawyer-client relationship, client and lawyer expectations of the representation, the role of the lawyer as problem-solver, access to the system of justice, public perceptions of the justice system, and effective communication as a vital element of professionalism. A local lawyer and judge served as the sponsors of each meeting which were held in conjunction with a local bar meeting. Each program began with remarks by a Georgia Supreme Court justice followed by the presentation of videotaped vignettes showing lawyer-client interactions interspersed with discussion of the issues raised in the tape by a panel composed of lawyers and clients from the community. The second part of the program was devoted to small group discussions for the lawyers, judges, and community guests to identify ways that service to clients and the administration of justice can be improved. The program concluded with recommendations from each breakout group. The second series of Town Hall Meetings started in the fall of 1994 with meetings in Atlanta, Brunswick, and Decatur and continued in 1995 and 1996 in Macon, Columbus, Rome, Tifton, and Gwinnett County.
The Town Hall Meetings II reports listed certain client expectations of the lawyer-client relationship that are too frequently not met, in the eyes of the client:
The non-lawyers at the second series of town hall meetings recommended that the State Bar publicize the fact that it does sanction lawyers for ethical violations, violations of the Standards of Conduct which govern members of the State Bar of Georgia.
In 1995, the Consumer Assistance Program was established by the State Bar of Georgia in response to the concerns expressed at the town hall meetings and to the need for a means to resolve misunderstandings and disputes between lawyers and clients. History has shown that the majority of complaints against lawyers involve matters that can be resolved outside of the disciplinary process; indeed, these complaints do not rise to the level of violations of Standards of Conduct for which a lawyer may be disciplined by the State Bar of Georgia. Prior to the creation of the Consumer Assistance Program, such nondisciplinary complaints were dismissed, leading to public disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the lawyer discipline process. The purpose of the Consumer Assistance Program is to resolve as many nondisciplinary complaints as possible through conciliation, negotiation, and education. Those matters that cannot be readily resolved may be referred to other State Bar programs, such as Fee Arbitration, Lawyer Assistance, Law Practice Management, Clients' Security Fund, or to lawyer referral services.
In further response to the concerns expressed by members of the public at the town hall meetings, the State Bar in 1996 created a special Committee on the Standards of the Profession to investigate the Bar's responsibility to provide the kind of training necessary to prepare newly admitted lawyers to represent clients competently and professionally. The results of that study were presented in the 1997 Committee Report which recommended a Pilot Mentor Project as described below in the section on Mentoring.