FAU Study: States of New England Best at Attorney Discipline

By paul owers | 6/16/2022

The New England states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont are best among the 50 states at attorney discipline, devoting more resources to addressing and resolving complaints of wrongdoing, according to a study from researchers at Florida Atlantic University.

The study, published in The Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance, also found that Alabama, New York and Missouri finished with the bottom three composite scores, respectively.

Florida had the seventh-lowest ranking in the U.S., according to the study, which found that low attorney discipline is an indicator of corruption but not a direct measure.

FAU researchers James McNulty, Ph.D., and graduate student Jason Damm, Ph.D., said states with limited discipline have less trustworthy and less predictable legal systems, making it more difficult for businesses to function properly.

The researchers also found a correlation between states committed to disciplining attorneys and long-term economic growth, although there was not a direct link. They suggest more research in this area may prove useful.

“More resources for attorney discipline would probably improve the rates of economic growth for states at the bottom of our rankings,” said McNulty, Emeritus Professor of Finance in FAU’s College of Business. “Those states’ law schools also would be wise to focus more on legal ethics.”

Damm earned a doctoral degree from FAU this year and will begin teaching at the University of Miami in the fall. He and McNulty drew their conclusions after analyzing data from 2000 to 2017.

They relied on the American Bar Association’s annual Survey on Lawyer Discipline (SOLD) and developed five measures of discipline: Number of complaints; number of lawyers charged with misconduct; the ratio of the number of attorneys charged to the number of complaints; the attorney discipline budget; and the caseload per disciplinary attorney.

In securing the best score, New Hampshire had the fourth-fewest complaints of the 50 states, the fourth-lowest caseload and the fourth-highest caseload per disciplinary attorney.

Alabama’s best ranking was 25th in attorneys charged, and the state finished no better than No. 31 in the other four categories.

After Vermont, the states finishing with the best composite scores were: South Carolina; Texas; California; Hawaii; Georgia; Virginia; and Washington. Other states in the bottom 10 of the rankings were: Kentucky; Ohio; North Carolina; Indiana; Montana; and Idaho. 

McNulty and Damm said they aren’t aware of another study considering SOLD data to evaluate attorney discipline and its effect on state growth.

The researchers noted that if states are alike in every important respect except for attorney discipline, it is likely that ethically challenged attorneys will choose to practice in the more lenient area. What’s more, firms that generate big profits from unethical practices such as racketeering, extreme pollution and predatory lending are more likely to do business in states where there are more attorneys to defend them and who are willing to depart from the norms governing the legal profession. 

“Attorneys are officers of the court,” according to the study. “If citizens cannot trust the people that make and enforce the laws, it is more difficult for any society to function effectively.”