Overview of ARDC

The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) operates under the authority of the Illinois Supreme Court, which has sole authority to regulate the admission and discipline of lawyers in Illinois. Since 1973, administrative responsibility for the registration and discipline of Illinois lawyers has been delegated by the Illinois Supreme Court to the ARDC. The ARDC is overseen by a seven-member Commission, whose members are appointed by the Court. Four members of the Commission must be members of the Illinois bar, and the other three members are not lawyers (“public members”). The Commissioners serve without compensation for three-year terms. The Commission acts as a board of directors for the disciplinary agency, setting general policy and overseeing its implementation. The Commission has no role in deciding cases before the ARDC.

With the approval of the Supreme Court, the Commission appoints an Administrator to serve as the principal executive officer of the agency. The Administrator has a staff of more than 80 employees, including more than 30 lawyers, who oversee registration, conduct investigations, prosecute disciplinary cases and unauthorized practice of law actions, support volunteer board members, and produce publications and programs related to ethics and discipline. The ARDC's operations are funded principally by an annual fee assessed against lawyers registered to practice in Illinois. The ARDC maintains offices in both Chicago and Springfield.

Registration practices and disciplinary proceedings are governed by rules adopted by the Illinois Supreme Court. The Court has delegated to the Commission authority to make additional rules, to enter orders related to ARDC operations, and to establish policies for disciplinary proceedings subject to review and action by the Court. Other duties of the Commission include appointment of the members of the Inquiry Board, the Hearing Board, the Oversight Committee and the Client Protection Review Panel; publication of an annual report; determination of Client Protection awards; collection and administration of the disciplinary fund; and performance of an after-the-fact review of a representative sampling of investigative matters closed by the Administrator without referral to the Inquiry Board.

Practicing Illinois lawyers are required to register annually with the ARDC. Through the registration process, the ARDC maintains accurate records relating to all practicing lawyers in the State of Illinois. The ARDC provides courts and the public with access to information about individual lawyers, including business contact information, whether the lawyer is currently registered and authorized to practice law, whether the lawyer has been disciplined in the past, whether there are any pending formal complaints against the lawyer, and whether the lawyer reports having legal malpractice insurance coverage. As part of annual registration, lawyers pay fees to the ARDC, which are used to fund the ARDC’s operations and which contribute to the support of the Lawyers’ Assistance Program, the Lawyer’s Trust Fund, the Illinois Supreme Court’s Commission on Professionalism and the Client Protection Program Trust Fund.
The ARDC’s Administrator has a staff of lawyers, investigators and paralegals who investigate complaints involving the conduct and fitness of lawyers who practice in Illinois and complaints of unauthorized practice of law in Illinois. The Administrator has investigative subpoena power, and Illinois lawyers are required to cooperate in any investigation of themselves or another lawyer. All investigations are confidential. Generally, investigations of lawyers that are closed without the filing of a complaint are expunged three years after closure of the investigative file.

Investigations are closed when the Administrator’s counsel determines that there is insufficient evidence to establish that a lawyer engaged in professional misconduct or that an individual or entity engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Beyond that bright-line standard, however, the Administrator, acting through counsel, has considerable discretion in the closure of investigations. The Administrator may conclude that appropriate resource allocation requires closure of investigations involving less serious allegations so that investigations involving more serious allegations may be pursued. The Administrator might also close an investigation after concluding that alleged misconduct was isolated and not likely to be repeated, or after securing a lawyer’s agreement to participate in a remedial or educational program or activity designed to address concerns identified in an investigation. In practice, many closure decisions are the product of a confluence of factors, including the Administrator’s analysis of available evidence, interpretation of applicable rules of professional conduct, assessment of potential harm to the public and to the administration of justice, and judgment on the appropriate use of ARDC resources.
The ARDC has several adjudicatory boards with different roles in the disciplinary system. The Inquiry Board reviews investigations referred to it by the Administrator to determine whether sufficient evidence exists for the filing of a formal complaint against a lawyer seeking disciplinary action, whether there is a sufficient basis for an unauthorized practice of law proceeding, or whether the investigation should be dismissed, closed or deferred with remedial conditions. The Inquiry Board is composed of lawyers and public members appointed by the Commission. Inquiry Board members serve without compensation. The Inquiry Board acts in panels of three (two lawyers and one public member). The majority of a panel constitutes a quorum, and the concurrence of a majority is necessary to a decision.

If an Inquiry Board panel votes to approve the filing of formal charges against a lawyer, the Administrator files a formal complaint or petition with the Clerk of the Commission and the matter proceeds before the ARDC’s Hearing Board.
Disciplinary cases against Illinois lawyers are prosecuted before panels of the ARDC’s Hearing Board. The Hearing Board consists of lawyers and public members appointed by the Commission in a ratio of two lawyers to one public member. Hearing Board members serve without compensation. The Commission designates one lawyer member as Chair of the entire Hearing Board and one lawyer member to serve as Vice-Chair of the entire Hearing Board.

The Hearing Board sits in panels of three, with one of the lawyer members designated as panel Chair. Panel Chairs for individual cases are randomly selected from a roster of eligible Board members approved by the ARDC’s seven-member Commission. Proceedings before hearing panels, including discovery practice, are governed by the Illinois statutes and Supreme Court rules that govern civil practice, as modified by rules adopted by the Commission. Proceedings before hearing panels in disciplinary cases are open to the public once a complaint has been served on the respondent lawyer. In contested cases, the panels receive evidence, hear witness testimony and listen to arguments by both sides in the case. After cases have been heard, panels make findings of fact, draw legal conclusions and make a recommendation for discipline, dismissal of the complaint or petition, or a non-disciplinary disposition. Panels may order that the lawyer be issued a reprimand by the Hearing Board in lieu of recommending disciplinary action by the Supreme Court. When a consent disposition is proposed while a case pends before the Hearing Board, the hearing panel reviews the proposed disposition prior to submission of the agreement to the Supreme Court.
The ARDC’s Review Board acts as an appellate tribunal for disciplinary cases in which the Administrator or the lawyer file a notice of exception (objections) to the report and recommendation of the Hearing Board. The Review Board is composed of nine lawyer members appointed by the Supreme Court. Review Board members serve three-year terms, and no member can be appointed for more than three consecutive three-year terms. Members serve without compensation. One member of the Board is designated by the Supreme Court as Chair. The Review Board sits in panels of three, with the most senior member presiding.

The parties submit briefs to the Review Board, which may hear oral argument where requested by the parties. After considering the briefs and argument, if allowed, the Review Board files a written report. The Review Board may approve, modify or reject the findings and/or recommendation of the Hearing Board. The Review Board may remand or dismiss the proceedings and may itself impose a reprimand or recommend that any other discipline be imposed by the Court.
The Illinois Supreme Court has sole authority to impose disciplinary sanctions against lawyers for misconduct, with the exception that reprimands may be issued by the ARDC’s Hearing or Review Boards. If neither party files exceptions to a report of the Hearing Board or seeks leave to except to a report of the Review Board that recommends action by the Court, the recommendation of the Hearing Board or the Review Board is submitted to the Supreme Court as an agreed matter. The Court may enter a final order of discipline as recommended by the Hearing Board or Review Board, or as otherwise deemed appropriate by the Court; order briefs and argument; or remand the matter to the Hearing Board or Review Board with directions.

Additionally, either party may file a petition for leave to file exceptions to a Review Board report with the Supreme Court. If the Court determines to grant the petition, it may decide to consider the case after full briefing and oral argument. Whether the Court allows or denies the petition, it may enter a final order as recommended by the Review Board or as otherwise deemed appropriate by the Court or remand the matter to the Hearing Board or Review Board.
Disciplinary sanctions may be imposed against lawyers who have been found to have engaged in professional misconduct. The types of discipline which may be imposed include: disbarment; suspension for a specified period (where a lawyer may resume practice at the end of that period absent further order to the contrary); suspension until further order of the court (where the suspended lawyer may not resume practice until after the expiration of the suspension period, if any, and after the disciplined lawyer has established fitness during a reinstatement proceeding); probation in conjunction with either type of suspension; censure; and reprimand. A reprimand may be administered by the Hearing Board, the Review Board or the Supreme Court. All other forms of discipline may be ordered only by the Supreme Court.
The ARDC investigates allegations of the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) and may initiate UPL proceedings against suspended and disbarred Illinois lawyers, out-of-state lawyers licensed in other jurisdictions, and persons not licensed in any jurisdiction, pursuant to its authority under Supreme Court Rule 779. UPL proceedings against a suspended Illinois lawyer or a lawyer from another United States jurisdiction are filed and conducted before the Hearing Board in the same manner as disciplinary prosecutions. UPL proceedings against a disbarred Illinois attorney or against a person, entity or association that is not licensed to practice law in any other United States’ jurisdiction may be brought as civil or contempt actions commenced in the circuit court pursuant to the Supreme Court’s rules, the Court’s inherent authority over the practice of law, and other laws of the state related to the UPL.
The ARDC's Client Protection Program reimburses claimants for certain losses suffered in the course of an attorney-client relationship with a lawyer who has been disciplined or who has died. Client Protection claims are investigated by the Administrator through Client Protection counsel, who presents a proposed Administrator’s Report to the Commission. The Commission determines whether the claim meets program requirements. Awards may be made in an amount up to $100,000 per claim and up to $1,000,000 per attorney. Either the respondent or the claimant may seek reconsideration of the Commission’s decision. The Commission may refer such a request to its Client Protection Review Panel, which will review the matter and provide its own report to the Commission for final determination.

Awards are paid out of the Client Protection Program Trust Fund, which is supported by registration fees paid by Illinois attorneys. Lawyers who have been suspended or placed on probation are required to reimburse the Fund for awards paid on account of their conduct prior to the termination of the period of suspension or probation. Lawyers who have been disbarred must reimburse the Fund for awards paid due to their conduct before they may petition for reinstatement.
The ARDC engages in a variety of education and outreach activities. Through the Ethics Inquiry Program, ARDC staff members provide information and research assistance by telephone to lawyers and members of the general public on issues relating to lawyers’ professional responsibilities. The ARDC also publishes articles, reference materials, resource links and other information designed to assist lawyers in complying with the rules of professional conduct. These materials may be found on our Education & Practice Resources page. Additionally, the ARDC provides Traditional Learning Opportunities for lawyers and citizen groups by providing experienced presenters to speak on topics relating to lawyer ethics and regulation. Further, the ARDC has a robust Online Learning Portal that contains free and MCLE-accredited on-demand CLE programs, including the PMBR Self-Assessment Program.