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The Reasons Why Lawyers Get Disbarred

Updated on March 3, 2018
The cover of a pretty good book.  Fallen: Confessions of a Disbarred Lawyer.  See Amazon posing below.
The cover of a pretty good book. Fallen: Confessions of a Disbarred Lawyer. See Amazon posing below. | Source

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.

The following article delves into these four points a bit further. Also, near the end; we have collated a table of contacts in each U.S. state where you can express your grievances about any legal professional. (Often we have found links to the online complaint letter that you can submit)

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.

"Who needs a law license when you can fist bump like this..."
"Who needs a law license when you can fist bump like this..." | Source

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.

State-By-State Attorney Disciplinary Organizations & Contact Info

(click column header to sort results)
U.S. State  
Disbarment Organization  
Contact Info:  
Link To Attorney/Judge Grievance Form  
Alabama
Alabama State Bar: Center For Professional Responsibility
415 Dexter Avenue Montgomery, AL 36104 334-269-1515 www.alabar.org
https://www.alabar.org/assets/uploads/2014/08/Complaint-form_brochure-2012.pdf
Alaska
Alaska State Bar
PO Box 100279, Anchorage, AK 99510-0279 / 840 K Street, Suite 100, Anchorage, AK 99501 Phone: 907-272-7469
https://alaskabar.org/wp-content/uploads/UPDATEDGrievance-2.pdf
Arizona
Arizona State Bar
State Bar of Arizona at 4201 N. 24th Street, Suite 100, Phoenix, Arizona 85016-6266, Tel. 602.340.7280.
https://courts.arkansas.gov/sites/default/files/Grievance_Form.pdf
California
California State Bar: Office of the Chief Trial Counsel
845 South Figueroa Street Los Angeles, California 90017-2515 Tel. (213) 765-1000 Fax: (213) 765-1168
http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Portals/0/documents/forms/2017_ComplaintFormENG_201701.pdf
Colorado
Colorado Supreme Court: Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel.
1300 Broadway, Suite 500 Denver, CO 80203 Tel. (303) 457-5800, or toll free (877) 888-1370.
Contact Attorney Regulation Counsel First
Connecticut
Connecticut Judicial Branch Statewide Grievance Committee (aka Statewide Bar Connsel)
287 Main Street Second Floor, Suite Two East Hartford, CT 06118-1885 Phone: (860) 568-5157; Fax: (860) 568-4953
http://www.jud.ct.gov/webforms/forms/gc006.pdf
Delaware
Office of Disciplinary Counsel
The Renaissance Centre 405 North King Street, Suite 420 Wilmington, Delaware 19801 P: (302) 651-3931 | F: (302) 651-3939
https://courts.delaware.gov/forms/download.aspx?id=84208
Georgia
State Bar of Georgia: Consumer Assistance Program
104 Marietta St. NW, Suite 100 Atlanta, GA 30303 800-334-6865 ext. 759 Fax: 404-287-8390
https://www.gabar.org/committeesprogramssections/programs/upload/cap_intake_form.pdf
Hawaii
Hawai’I Supreme Court: Office of Disciplinary Counsel
201 Merchant Street, Suite 1600 Honolulu, Hawai`i 96813 Tel. (888)206-5622.
http://www.odchawaii.com/uploads/140508_-_Complaint_Form.pdf
Idaho
Idaho State Bar: Office of Bar Counsel
525 West Jefferson • P. O. Box 895 • Boise, Idaho 83701 (208) 334-4500 • Fax: (208) 334-2764
https://isb.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/bc_complaint_form.pdf
Illinois
Supreme Court of Illinois: Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission
130 E. Randolph Dr., Ste. 1500 Chicago, IL 60601-6219 Phone: (312) 565-2600 or (800) 826-8625 Fax: (312) 565-2320
https://www.iardc.org/information/online_forms/Request_For__Investigation.pdf
Indiana
Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission
251 North Illinois Street, Suite 1650 Indianapolis, IN 46204 Phone: (317) 232.1807 Fax: (317) 233.0261
http://www.in.gov/judiciary/discipline/files/grform.pdf
Iowa
Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board
1111 East Court Avenue Des Moines, Iowa 50319 Telephone (515) 725-8017
https://www.iowacourts.gov/static/media/cms/Iowa_Supreme_Court_Attorney_Discipl_F98FFFB7D105A.pdf
Kansas
State of Kansas Office of The Disciplinary Administrator
701 Jackson St. 1 st Floor Topeka, Kansas 66603-3729 Telephone: (785) 296-2486 Fax: (785) 296-6049
http://www.kscourts.org/pdf/complaintform.pdf
Kentucky
Kentucky Bar Association Office Of Bar Counsel
514 West Main Street Frankfort KY 40601-1812
https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.kybar.org/resource/resmgr/Forms/complaint.pdf
Louisiana
Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board
4000 S. Sherwood Forest Blvd., Suite 607 Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70816 (225) 293-3900 or (800) 326-8022
https://www.ladb.org/Complaint/HowTo.aspx
Maine
Board of Overseers of the Bar State of Maine
97 Winthrop Street P. O. Box 527 Augusta, Maine 04332-0527 Telephone: (207) 623-1121
https://form.jotform.com/BoardForms/grievance-complaint-form
Maryland
Office of Bar Counsel, Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland
200 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Suite 300, Annapolis, MD 21401 Phone: 410-514-7051
https://www.courts.state.md.us/sites/default/files/import/attygrievance/docs/complaintform.pdf
 
 
 
 
Massachusetts
Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers
99 High Street Boston, Massachusetts 02110 tel: (617) 728-8750 fax: (617) 482-2992
https://bbopublic.blob.core.windows.net/web/f/Confidential-Application.pdf
Minnesota
Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility
1500 Landmark Towers 345 St. Peter Street St. Paul, MN 55102
http://lprb.mncourts.gov/complaints/Pages/ComplaintForm.aspx
Mississippi
Mississippi Bar: Consumer Assistance Program
Consumer Assistance Program Post Office Box 2168 Jackson, Mississippi 39225-2168 Telephone at (601) 948-2344; email: gwaddle@msbar.org
: Will be sent you upon request
Montana
Office of Disciplinary Counsel
P.O. Box 1099 Helena, MT 59624-1099 phone: 406-442-1648 fax: 406-442-2685
http://www.montanaodc.org/Portals/ODC/Complaint.covsht.2.pdf
Nebraska
Counsel for Discipline
3808 Normal Blvd. Lincoln, NE 68506
https://supremecourt.nebraska.gov/sites/default/files/AD-2-14.pdf
Nevada
State Bar of Nevada Office of Bar Counsel
3100 W. Charleston Blvd., Suite 100, Las Vegas, NV 89102
https://www.nvbar.org/member-services-3895/ethics-discipline/complaint/complaint-online/
New Hampshire
New Hampshire Supreme Court Attorney Discipline Office
4 Chenell Drive, Suite 102 Concord, NH 03301 Phone: (603) 224-5828 Fax: (603) 228-9511
Follow Instructions: http://www.nhattyreg.org/grievance.php
New Jersey
Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE)
There are currently 18 court ethics districts in New Jersey. Must submit grievance to district where attorney is located.
https://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/forms/10952_grievancefrm.pdf
New Mexico
New Mexico Supreme Court: Disciplinary Board
20 First Plaza NW, Suite 710 Albuquerque, NM 87102 Office (505) 842-5781 FAX (505) 766-6833
https://www.nmdisboard.org/NMDBComplaintFormEng.pdf
New York
Attorney Disciplinary / Grievance Committee
Locations: Many different locations depending on where the lawyer in question practices
https://www.nycourts.gov/attorneys/grievance/complaints.shtml
North Carolina
North Carolina State Bar: Grievance Committee
PO Box 25908 Raleigh, NC 27611 Telephone: (919) 828‐4620
https://www.ncbar.gov/media/490329/grievance-form.pdf
North Dakota
North Dakota Supreme Court: Office of Disciplinary Counsel
Office of Disciplinary Counsel, 125 Slate Dr., Ste. 2, P.O. Box 2297, Bismarck, ND 58502-2297 Tel. 701-328-3925
Instructions: https://www.ndcourts.gov/court/Committees/disc_brd/information.htm
Ohio
Ohio State Bar Association: Office of Disciplinary Counsel
Office of Disciplinary Counsel, 250 Civic Center Drive, Suite 325, Columbus, Ohio 43215-5454
http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/DisciplinarySys/odc/odcform.pdf
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State Bar: Office of the General Counsel
General Counsel, Oklahoma Bar Association, P.O. Box 53036, Oklahoma City, OK 73152-3036, (405) 416-7007
http://www.okbar.org/Portals/13/General%20Counsel/ComplaintForm.pdf
Oregon
Oregon State Bar: Client Assistance Office
Client Assistance Office Oregon State Bar 16037 SW Upper Boones Ferry Road P.O. Box 231935 Tigard, Oregon 97281-1935
http://www.osbar.org/secured/cao_attorneycomplaints.asp
Pennsylvania
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania: Disciplinary Board
Various Locations, Depending on District where Attorney resides
https://www.padisciplinaryboard.org/for-the-public/file-complaint
Rhode Island
Rhode Island Judiciary: Disciplinary Board
222 Quaker Lane – Room 1083 Warwick, Rhode Island 02886 (401) 823-5710 telephone
https://www.courts.ri.gov/PublicResources/disciplinaryboard/PDF/ComplaintForm.pdf
South Carolina
South Carolina Bar: Commission on Lawyer Conduct
Commission on Lawyer Conduct 1220 Senate Street., Ste. 111 Columbia, SC 29201 Telephone: (803) 734-2037
No Formatted Form, simply write or call
South Dakota
State Bar of South Dakota: Disciplinary Board
Disciplinary Board, The State Bar of South Dakota, 222 E. Capitol, Pierre, SD 57501
No Formatted Form, simply write and send in letter
Tennessee
Supreme Court of Tennessee: Board of Professional Responsibility
Board of Professional Responsibility 10 Cadillac Drive Suite 220 Brentwood, TN 37027 Fax No: 615-367-2480 Email: complaints@tbpr.org
http://www.tbpr.org/for-the-public/file-complaint
Texas
State Bar of Texas: Chief Disciplinary Counsel's Office
P.O. Box 13287 Austin, Texas 78711 Or fax it to (512) 427-4169
http://cdc.texasbar.com/cdc/Home/Index
Utah
Utah State Bar’s Office of Professional Conduct (OPC)
645 S 200 E, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
http://www.utahbar.org/member-services/cap-request-form/
Vermont
Vermont Judiciary: Professional Responsibility Board
Professional Responsibility Board c/o Costello Courthouse 32 Cherry St, Ste, 213 Burlington, VT 05401
Must be handwritten and send to offices
Virginia
Virginia State Bar: Office of Bar Counsel
Office of Bar Counsel Virginia State Bar 1111 East Main Street, Suite 700 Richmond, Virginia 23219-0026 (804) 775-0570
https://www.vsb.org/inquiry_form.pdf
Washington
Washington State Bar Association: Office of Disciplinary Counsel
1325 Fourth Ave, Ste 600 Seattle, WA 98101-2539 or caa@wsba.org
https://www.wsba.org/docs/default-source/licensing/discipline/2018-02-07-grievance-form-fillable-form.pdf?sfvrsn=f5af3cf1_18
West Virginia
West Virginia State Bar: Office of Disciplinary Counsel
2000 Deitrick Boulevard, Charleston, WV 25311-1231 Phone 304-553-7220 | Toll Free 866-989-8227
Must submit written affidavit
Wisconsin
Wisconsin Court System: Office of Lawyer Regulation
Office of Lawyer Regulation 110 East Main Street, Suite 315 Madison, WI 53703-3383 Telephone 877-315-6941 (toll free) or 608-267-7274 www.wicourts.gov/olr Email: OLR.Intake@wicourts.gov
https://www.wicourts.gov/formdisplay/LR-004.pdf?formNumber=LR-004&formType=Form&formatId=2&language=en
Wyoming
Wyoming State Bar: Office of Bar Counsel
P.O. Box 109 Cheyenne, WY 82003-0109
https://www.wyomingbar.org/wp-content/uploads/Ethical_Violations_Complaint_Form-1.pdf

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