Erica Temple ’98 uses law degree to protect public, integrity of Washington legal system
Keeping the public protected and the integrity of the legal system intact is all in a day’s work for Erica Temple ’98 who works as disciplinary counsel for the Washington State Bar Association. Each year, her division reviews more than 2,000 grievances from across the state, investigating if there were any ethical violations involved.
“We take grievances that are filed, and they can be filed by anyone, but they’re mostly filed by clients, other lawyers, and in general people involved in the legal system, and then we review those along with the accused lawyers’ responses, and we determine whether or not the rules of professional conduct have been violated. If we believe that there are rule violations, then the matter proceeds to a review committee, which is a group of lawyers and non-lawyers who review our investigations. The case then moves on to a formal proceeding, which is a public hearing, like an administrative process,” Temple explained.
“Our job is to work to protect the public and to ensure the ethical behavior of lawyers. I think probably the most rewarding thing is ensuring that lawyers who commit misconduct are sanctioned so that the public is protected from their misconduct.”
That concern for the well-being of the Washington’s citizens as well as the ethical standards to which lawyers are held can also be one of the most challenging parts of the job, Temple said, when you have attorneys who committed ethical violations that may have occurred while they were suffering from issues such as substance abuse or mental illness.
“You know you have a certain amount of empathy for them, but at the same time you want to make sure their clients and the legal profession are protected from their actions. You have empathy for lawyers who maybe abandon their practice because of mental health or substance abuse issues where maybe if they had gotten help at the onset that would not have happened,” she explained.
In general, Temple said, her office sees grievances most often for unsatisfactory performance and personal behavior. According to a 2015 report, those two violations accounted for 58 percent of all grievances that came into the department. And for the most part, those grievances are associated with cases either in the realm of criminal law or family law. Temple said according to the department’s records, in 2015, 31 percent of all complaints stemmed from criminal law cases and 19 percent from family law matters.
Before she even entered law school, Temple said the law was something she had found fascinating. It was something she always knew she wanted to pursue as a career.
“I wanted to go into criminal law from the start because I found being in the courtroom and being a litigator and working with the criminal justice system to just be really exciting and rewarding. It’s a fascinating place to be. The real life drama is much better than anything you see on ‘Law & Order,’” she said.
After working for nearly a decade as a deputy prosecutor in Snohomish County, just north of Seattle, Washington, following graduation, however, Temple decided to pursue another passion: Cooking.
She left her position with the county and enrolled in culinary school. After graduation, she landed in a fine dining establishment in Seattle for a short time before she began to feel a pull to return to the law. “Cooking is something that I may want to go back to in the future. I’ve always wanted to own my own restaurant, but this opportunity with the bar association opened up and it’s something that I’ve really enjoyed and found to be very rewarding,” she said.
“I’ve learned a lot. It’s interesting because each new grievance involves a different area of law. It could be probate or bankruptcy or immigration law. For me that means learning a little bit about each of those fields as I work through what a lawyer may have done, and whether or not they committed an ethical violation.”