The Reasons Why Lawyers Get Disbarred
To disbar, according to Webster's dictionary, is to expel from the legal profession or from the bar of a particular court. Yet, the details of disbarment are a little more nuanced than that. Let's take a minute to go into more detail.
In truth, being disbarred is perhaps the most damning and yet least understood aspects of the legal profession. So let's start with some basic truths. In total I have four:
- Attorneys are usually disbarred one-state (or one jurisdiction) at a time.
- In general, lawyers are disbarred for those offenses that indicate an inability to practice law with honesty, integrity, etc.
- Besides disbarment, there are other ways for an attorney to lose their license.
- Disbarment is not always permanent. Some attorneys can get back their license.
Let's delve into these four points a little further...
1.) Attorneys are usually disbarred on a state by state basis: This makes perfect sense as lawyers take the bar exam for a particular state in order to obtain a license to practice in said state. And it just so happens that each state has its own set of similar but nonetheless unique rules governing attorney behavior. If an attorney violates or abuses these rules,he or she can be can be summoned to a disciplinary hearing where (among other things) they can be disbarred. However, disbarment by the court is usually an extreme case measure reserved for egregious violations of attorney ethics. In most cases, there are a series of punishments for lesser crimes that courts to default to such as fines, or suspensions.
So what if a lawyer is licensed in multiple states, which is a very common case, and gets disbarred in one; do they get disbarred in all the others. Generally speaking, no. It is up to for each jurisdiction to decide the status of someone's law license. However, getting disbarred in any one state does not speak well for you chances for retaining (or obtaining) a license in other states.
2.) In general, lawyers are disbarred for those offenses that indicate an inability to practice law with honesty, integrity, etc....: This point has to be emphasized to understand exactly why some lawyers are disbarred and some are given lesser punishments or simply ignored. For instance If an attorney commits a crime, most courts and bar associations only really care about if the crime (whatever it is) indicates that the attorney lacks the characteristics necessary to be an effective lawyer. So let's do a thought experiment. Could a lawyer be convicted of drug possession or some other serious felony and still hold on to their law license? The answer...well it depends on the jurisdiction, but it is definitely possible. There have been more than a few cases of lawyers engaged in overtly criminal acts but still retaining their licenses.
3.) Besides disbarment, there are other ways for an attorney to lose their license.
This is another area of great confusion/misunderstanding for all non-legal experts. Disbarment is not the only way an attorney can lose their license. Rather it is important to acknowledge that many bar associations have clearly defined licensing requirements/duties that allow you to keep said license. These licensing requirements can vary among the different bar associations or jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions require the payment of dues while others may require that license holders obtain some kind of continuing education or both.
However, no matter what the requirement are, not complying with the them could result in a suspension of the attorney's license. Many jurisdictions are very careful not to call this type of law-degree loss "disbarment," as "disbarment" is often associated with legal misconduct and malfeasance. Unfortunately, much confusion still remains. Take for example, the Obamas.
A simple google keyword planner search will reveal that two of the most common phrases searched containing the search term "disbarred" are "Michelle Obama disbarred" and "Barack Obama disbarred." Put these terms into a search engine and you will see everything from conspiracy theory websites to forums dedicated to the birther movement raising suspicions about the circumstances surrounding Barack and Michelle's "disbarment." Most of them will make the claim that Barack Obama surrendered his law license in 2008 to escape the claim that he lied on his bar application. They will also claim that Michelle, likewise, lost her license under similar circumstances.
However, Factcheck.org and other independent sources have confirmed that both Barack and Michelle "have voluntarily elected to have their law license(s) placed on inactive status." Barack even going the further step of changing his law license to "retired" after he became president.
Obviously, whoever started the rumor about the Obama's licensure loss was banking on the commonly held view that service professionals who lose their license must have done something wrong. For shame :(.
4.) Disbarment is not always permanent.
In some cases, an attorney who has been disbarred for some kind of misconduct can petition a court or bar association to have their license reinstated. Yet, this is much easier said than done. According to this article in the ABA (American Bar Association) Journal, a recent survey shows that of the 674 petitions submitted for bar reinstatement/readmission, only 67 were successful. That's a paltry 10% of applications accepted.
Additionally, in most states, the process of reinstatement is full of extra roadblocks and barriers. For instance, some states require disbarred lawyers to retake the bar exam and undergo a full ethics and character review. And some bar associations require disbarred lawyers to pay extra fees in order to take the bar exam.
Moreover, many disbarred lawyers are themselves represented by counsel (other lawyers) as they attempt to reclaim their licenses. And this counsel is usually paid for out of pocket.
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