- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

For anyone who has ever wanted to skewer a lawyer, there is Joyce Peters, the District's bar counsel and crusader against sleazy lawyers. Her 31-person staff is in charge of investigating complaints against lawyers to make certain they are honest. If they are not, the punishments can include a nasty notation in their records, fines, disbarment and even jail.

"My standard line is people either want to know us or they don't want to know us," Mrs. Peters said. "We're either the most popular or the least popular."

Mrs. Peters, 55, a retired Army colonel, Harvard undergraduate, University of Michigan Law School grad, and former legislative adviser to Janet Reno, said, "I thought lawyers would have more creative ways than you could imagine to get themselves in trouble and I was right."

She lives with her husband, also a retired Army officer, in Arlington. They have no children but they do have a Portuguese water dog.

"The good thing about having a dog is you don't have to send them to college," she said.

When she's not at work, she likes "Harry Potter" books, playing the flute, art museums and surfing the Internet.

When she is at work, she and her staff are on the prowl for lawyers who steal money, lie to the courts, divulge clients' secrets or simply neglect a case. The most common complaint against lawyers is neglect.

"They just don't do the things they're paid to do," she said. The second most common offense is "taking money."

For either offense, the lawyers can find themselves facing tough questions in court from Mrs. Peters or the other 10 lawyers on her staff.

"We're not out gunning for people," Mrs. Peters said. Nevertheless, "People don't realize that when they become lawyers and accept a license, they are accepting a code of conduct for themselves."

Her office operates on a $3.8 million annual budget that is funded through dues paid by the District's 76,785 licensed lawyers. About 40,000 are practicing lawyers.

Considering that the Census Bureau estimates the District's 2001 population at 571,822 residents, Mrs. Peters rides herd on the highest density of lawyers in the United States.

In an average year, about 1,350 will have complaints filed against them. Last year, seven of them were disbarred and 10 reached consent agreements to give up their licenses. Another nine were disbarred in other jurisdictions but also held licenses in the District that they lost.

Mrs. Peters says she derives no pleasure from punishing lawyers. Her greatest joys come from protecting clients and clarifying the rules on ethics.

One of her efforts resulted in a judgment that was published in legal journals nationwide. It involved an attorney who petitioned the court to withdraw from a case. The petition accused the client of making "misrepresentations to her attorney."

By mentioning the client's "misrepresentations" in the petition, the attorney violated his obligation to maintain the secrecy of his client's legal matters, the bar counsel's office argued successfully in court.

Although the attorney was only informally warned to be more careful, the case set a precedent in the legal profession.

Mrs. Peters came to the bar counsel's office 2½ years ago from the Justice Department, where her duties included helping former Attorney General Janet Reno prepare for congressional inquiries into Justice Department activities.

Before that, she spent 22 years in the Army's Judge Advocate General Corps. She joined in 1972, barely a year out of law school and an unfulfilling taste of private law practice.

As a JAG officer, "I did a little bit of everything," she said. "There was a very big drug problem in the military at that time. It was a time of confrontation."

Like many career military personnel, she seldom spent more than a few years in any one place. Her stints included Germany, Korea and several states.

The military also prepared her for her current job. Her predecessor, Leonard Becker, returned to private law practice.

"I thought this job was a nice match with my background," Mrs. Peters said.

A typical day for Mrs. Peters extends from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and involves attending staff meetings, reviewing case files, taking phone calls and handling personnel matters. Other times, she walks across the street from her Judiciary Square office at 515 Fifth St. NW to the D.C. Courthouse for court appearances.

"Most of my work is here," she said while seated in her office.

She says her toughest cases often involve immigrants who have learned to mistrust the government and courts. They shade the truth to protect themselves. Often, they fear reprisal.

"Immigrants tend to be the most vulnerable," she said. "They are so afraid for their status, they don't make good witnesses. The case evaporates."

Other cases disappear when a client says one thing, the attorney says another and no tangible proof exists to show that one is right

"There are a lot of cases like that," she said. "The case just dies."

Mrs. Peters often uses her column in the Washington Lawyer magazine to update attorneys on their obligations, including the need to document their fees to avoid accusations of misappropriating money.

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