When is a Lawyer Subject to Disbarment?
Disbarment - being stripped of one's license to practice law - is the most severe professional penalty a lawyer can receive. Rule of Professional Conduct 8.5 states that a lawyer is subject to disbarment, or any disciplinary action, under the rules of the jurisdiction where that lawyer is admitted to practice, "regardless of where the lawyer's conduct occurs." What conduct? The commentary on Rule 8.4 proposes that, "Although a lawyer is personally answerable to the entire criminal law, a lawyer should be professionally answerable only for offenses that indicate lack of those characteristics relevant to law practice. Offenses involving violence, dishonesty, breach of trust, or serious interference with the administration of justice are in that category." Rule 8.4 itself states clearly that "It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to ... commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer ... [or to] engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation."
Financial fraud obviously qualifies the perpetrator for disbarment. Several years ago, for example, news stories focused on a St. Louis law firm that sued one of its former associates, alleging that the attorney secretly signed up and hid clients from the firm and prevented it from collecting possibly millions in attorneys' fees. More generally, lawyers can mismanage, carelessly or deliberately, client trust accounts. Every state imposes a fiduciary duty to properly account for clients' trust funds to prevent misappropriation or negligence and imposes severe penalties for violation, up to and including disbarment.
Non-financial Personal Misconduct
Non-financial personal misconduct is a more indefinite area. Several years ago a Kansas City lawyer was disbarred by the Kansas Supreme Court for shouting profanities at court clerks, brawling with court security officers, suggesting that a judge was a pedophile. Other conduct (according to the Bar Association hearing panel) "resulted in two criminal convictions, a contempt adjudication that led to 120 days in jail, minor injuries to a United States Marshal, and an adverse impact on a [client's] military career" by causing a negotiated settlement in a disciplinary case to break down. Crossing the line from incivility to assault is a sure path to disbarment.
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