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Bad lawyers do get caught. Not all of them, but probably more than you think. The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) investigates complaints made by clients, fellow attorneys and others. The legitimate and serious ones can make their way all the way up to the Illinois Supreme Court, which hands out punishments and disbars those attorneys who should no longer be allowed to practice law.

When someone files a complaint about an attorney with the ARDC, it doesn’t just end up in a file somewhere. The ARDC reviews each complaint and determines whether the complaint is legitimate and whether the case should go on to the next level. If the ARDC decides to take further action, it sends the complaint on to an inquiry board, which investigates the complaint. From there, cases go before the hearing board, which is a panel of three members who act as a trial court. Then, there is an ARDC review board that acts as the appellate court. Finally, most of these cases go on to the Illinois Supreme Court for a final determination. It can take a year or two to make it through this process.

The ARDC opens about 6,000 investigations a year. In 2013, 151 lawyers were disciplined, and 35 of those were completely disbarred. Lesser disciplinary action includes suspension, probation, censure and reprimand. Basically, it’s varying levels of punishment based on the offense.

As a client, you should look into the disciplinary record of any attorney you are thinking about hiring. These records are public information. Anyone can go to, which has a lawyer search option, and type in the name of the Illinois attorney they’re curious about. The database should tell you what, if any, disciplinary action the attorney has faced. If you are unsure about what you find, ask the attorney about it.

If you have a complaint about an attorney, you can file a request for an investigation on the same website. If the issue you experienced caused you financial harm and you believe the attorney was negligent in handling your case, you might want to consider a legal malpractice lawsuit.

Written by Michael Helfand