As far as I can tell, the NY State Bar exists to protect incompetent and dishonest immigration attorneys. It could care less about the immigrant victims of those attorneys.
New York has more attorneys than any other state–about 157,000 of them (as of 2010). A disproportional number of immigration attorneys are barred in NY because it is one of the few states that allows foreign lawyers to sit for the bar (assuming they take a certain number of credit hours at a U.S. law school), and many foreign-trained attorneys practice immigration law. Because there are so many immigration attorneys barred in New York, the NY Bar Association has a particular responsibility to protect immigrant victims of attorney malpractice.
Thus, when an alien (or her attorney) files a bar complaint against a New York-barred lawyer, you might think the Bar Association would take that complaint seriously. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
As an initial matter, it is not easy to file a bar complaint in New York. Unlike most other states, there is no central authority where complaints are filed. Instead, the injured client needs to determine the correct NY department with authority over the offending attorney. This depends on where the attorney is located, but it is not always easy to figure out. Once you know the correct department, you can file your complaint.
On behalf of my clients, I have filed two complaints against NY-barred lawyers.
The first was against an attorney who refused to turn over a client file because the client had not paid money allegedly owed to him. Refusing to turn over a file is not allowed under the Rules of Professional Conduct. After I filed the complaint, the attorney responded to Bar Counsel and threatened me with a frivolous bar complaint for the “tone” of my phone conversation and letter to him. Threatening a frivolous complaint is not allowed either. Nevertheless, the NY Bar saw fit to dismiss my complaint.
The second complaint did not even get that far, and was dismissed out of hand. In that case, my client received a decision from the BIA (she lost) and the lawyer failed to inform the client–for over one year. As you might imagine, not knowing that her case was denied caused problems for my client. The Bar Association’s response to our complaint:
After careful review, it has been determined that the issues you raise are more appropriate for resolution by the Board of Immigration Appeals in the first instance [we had also filed a motion to reopen with the BIA, but they are not responsible for attorney discipline]. Therefore, although we appreciate your effort, we are unable to assist you.
How nice that they appreciate our effort. Further, we did not file the complaint so that the Bar Association could “assist us.” We filed the complaint because the attorney violated her duty to inform my client about the result of the appeal, and because such a complaint is required to reopen the immigration case. If she did this to our client, likely she has done it to others. The Bar Association should be as concerned (or more concerned) about protecting potential future victims of this attorney than it is about “assisting” my client. But obviously, they do not care about my client or about any potential future victims.
To their credit, the Bar Association did an excellent job of protecting the incompetent lawyer. They did not even require her to make a response to our complaint. Thank goodness that the attorney was not inconvenienced by having to spend time explaining her bad conduct. Better, she should use that time to rip off other immigrants. With all the money she makes, I hope she remembers to bay her bar dues–she certainly owes them for protecting her.
Despite my annoyance at the general failure of the New York Bar to protect immigrants, there are some resources available. You can contact the Attorney Grievance Committees. You can also contact the Immigrant Affairs Program of the District Attorney’s Office for the City of New York. For the sake of future immigrant (and non-immigrant) victims, we can only hope that the NY Bar Association will one day recognize its responsibility to protect the public, and not just its own members.