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Larger review of OLR may be in the works, director says

A report commissioned by the Office of Lawyer Regulation was designed to raise any possible issues in anticipation of a larger review that has been discussed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the office’s director said Monday.

OLR Director Keith Sellen said the report came after several decisions released in May and June questioned why the OLR was prosecuting attorneys that the justices felt did little public harm. During the past Supreme Court term, justices also discussed the possibility of a comprehensive study of Wisconsin’s attorney discipline system.

“I saw what decisions the court was making,” Sellen said, “and thought it would be beneficial to our office and prepare for any systemic study that might arise.”

This is not the first time the OLR has undergone a review. A review of the system in 1999 led to the creation of the OLR and the dissolution of its predecessor, the Board of Attorneys Professional Responsibility. A report released in February 2012, commissioned by the Board of Administrative Oversight, found few problems with the system but included a number of recommendations to make the disciplinary process more fair and expeditious.

Sellen said the latest study was different because it was “designed for OLR to gain some expertise from individuals who are doing the same type of work in other states.” He said Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson was aware of the report and that if any changes result, they can be done in the hopes of making improvements before or during a comprehensive study.

The report, released last week, was compiled by John Gleason, counsel for Colorado Supreme Court Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, and Jerome Larkin, administrator of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois.

It pointed out several things the OLR could do to improve, including exercising more discretion when complaints are filed and reorganizing the office to avoid duplicating efforts. All of this was done to reduce the backload of cases and the average time it takes to resolve a case.

It was sent to Abrahamson and the Board of Administrative Oversight. Sellen said he will discuss the report with the court and the board before any changes are made.

Abrahamson and board Chairman Rod Rogahn did not immediately return calls Monday afternoon.

Sellen said the biggest proposed change — having his office use more discretion in OLR cases — may require a rule change. There are several existing rules that appear to say the OLR must pursue any rule violation, no matter how small.

“What the idea is here would be to not process those cases for discipline but take some other measure,” Sellen said. “Diversion, or we might close it and inform the grievant … we’re going to talk to the lawyer about this make and them aware that this constitutes a violation.”

He said that other changes — such as reorganizing staff or relying less on outside counsel — may not earn court approval.

Still, as he pointed out in a memo posted with the report, Sellen said he believes some of the pieces where the study found weaknesses work well. In particular, the report recommended that the Preliminary Review Committee – which screens cases and determines whether the OLR should file a formal complaint – only look at cases as a whole and not individual complaints.

Sellen said that system provides a safeguard against his office making a mistake and should not be removed.

“The system has some checks and balances that are really important,” Sellen said.

Sellen was adamant, though, that more discretion would not result in a lack of prosecution for attorneys who do harm to the public.

“In no case are we going to look at a case where a grievant has harmed or public has been harmed and dismiss it,” he said.

About Eric Heisig

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