It is an unfortunate fact of professional life that people will make mistakes and be punished for them. Depending on the severity of and intent behind the misstep, a full range of repercussions exists for on-the-job malfeasance—verbal warnings, written reprimands, reductions in pay, demotion, suspension, and termination.
For attorneys, discipline may be severe, considering that they must first answer to clients and employers (unless they are solo practitioners) and then are accountable to state supreme courts or bar associations as their professional licensing agencies. These agencies can impose sanctions for wrongdoing that may be especially harsh given the amount of time, money, and effort spent to become a lawyer, and given the purposeful, conscious decisions people make in becoming attorneys.
When attorneys find themselves in trouble, is it possible for them to salvage their legal careers?
What Constitutes Misconduct
There are universal reasons for an employee in any field to be punished or terminated—criminal acts, drug or alcohol possession or use at work, insubordination, poor performance, stealing, chronic tardiness or absenteeism, dereliction of duty, lying on a resume, harassment, and discrimination, among others.[i] However, lawyers are subject to discipline for a broader range of acts because more is expected of them professionally and ethically.
All lawyers take their state’s oath of attorney, which requires that lawyers act with integrity and civility and in compliance with a code of professional conduct.[ii] For what constitutes misconduct, Rule 8.4 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct specifies violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct: criminal acts that reflect “adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer;” conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation; conduct that impairs the administration of justice; and stating or suggesting an ability to improperly influence a government agency or official.[iii]
Sanctions for Attorney Misconduct
For lawyers being charged with misconduct, individual states have disciplinary commissions that are entrusted with reviewing cases and imposing punishment. While discipline varies by state, the most common forms of attorney discipline are:
- Financial sanctions, including restitution to persons harmed and payment of the costs of the disciplinary proceeding,
- Private admonitions,
- Public reprimands published in state bar journals and local newspapers,
- Probation, which is typically for two years (though it may be renewed if additional supervision is needed),
- Suspension, which is typically for three years, and
In its 2022 Profile of the Legal Profession, which reviewed public discipline records for 2019—the most recent year with available data—the ABA reported 2,308 cases of attorney discipline in 43 states and the District of Columbia, which represents only 0.2% of active attorneys in those states.[v] Of these cases, 21% of attorneys were disbarred, 44% were suspended, 11% were put on probation, and 24% received admonishments or reprimands.[vi]
Even though the incidence rate is low, cases of attorneys acting improperly and being disciplined are plentiful and often sensationalized. On March 1, 2023, alone, seven attorneys in Texas were suspended for client neglect[vii] and nine attorneys in Florida were disciplined, including two disbarments and six suspensions.[viii] Further, before he was found guilty of killing his wife and son following a trial in South Carolina that garnered national media attention, Alex Murdaugh was disbarred for “admitted reprehensible misconduct,” including money laundering, stealing money from clients, insurance fraud, and other criminal charges.[ix]
How Attorneys Can Recover from Discipline
In looking at the sanctions mentioned above, recovery from being disciplined is not impossible. Lawyers may incur financial setbacks or suffer the shame of being formally rebuked. Their professional careers may be put on hold temporarily while they are on probation or suspended. Even in the most drastic case of disbarment, attorneys can recover and salvage their legal careers—though the process for doing so is lengthy and onerous.
Personally, a disbarred attorney must address and rectify the behavior that led to disbarment. They must acknowledge their past issues, objectively analyze the issues, identify what needs to change, seek resources to make the changes, find support, and perhaps get professional help.[x] Additionally, they need to move on from any anger or frustration they feel with the underlying situation or with the disciplinary process.[xi]
Professionally, while the process varies by state, generally the disbarred attorney—after five years—may petition for reinstatement or readmission, which only can be granted by order of the court.[xii] The petition must specify under oath that the lawyer has satisfied eight criteria enumerated in Rule 25, Paragraph E of the Model Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement, including that the lawyer has removed the underlying disability or infirmity or pursued rehabilitative treatment for it, that they recognize the “wrongfulness and seriousness” of the misconduct that caused disbarment, that they have stayed current on recent developments in the law, that they are competent to practice law, and that they have passed the bar examination and the character and fitness examination.[xiii] If a hearing is awarded, the lawyer must show by “clear and convincing evidence” that they have satisfied the criteria in Rule 25, Paragraph E.[xiv] If reinstatement or readmission is granted, the court may require that the lawyer comply with certain conditions if it feels that “further precautions should be taken to protect the public.”[xv] In short, though time and effort spent may be considerable, attorneys can be reinstated after disbarment and can resume their legal careers.
Of course, attorneys should comply with the law and the Rules of Professional Conduct, and should employ basic common sense in their professional lives. But if they don’t and are sanctioned—maybe even disbarred—it’s not the end of their careers. It is possible to salvage one’s career after being disciplined.
[i] Doyle, A. (2023, January 18). Reasons Employees Can Get Fired. The Balance. https://www.thebalancemoney.com/top-reasons-for-getting-fired-2060732
[ii] Gottfried, R. (2022, January 1). The anatomy of our oath as attorneys. American Bar Association. https://abaforlawstudents.com/2022/01/01/the-anatomy-of-our-oath-as-attorneys/
[iii] American Bar Association. (n.d.). Rule 8.4: Misconduct. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/rule_8_4_misconduct/
[iv] American Bar Association. (2020, July 20). Rule 10, Model Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/resources/lawyer_ethics_regulation/model_rules_for_lawyer_disciplinary_enforcement/rule_10/
[v] American Bar Association. (n.d.). ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2022, Public Discipline and Disbarment. https://www.abalegalprofile.com/discipline.php
[vii] Pesquera, A. (2023, March 1). 7 Attorneys Suspended for Client Neglect in Divorce, Criminal and Immigration Cases. Law.com. https://www.law.com/texaslawyer/2023/03/01/7-attorneys-suspended-for-client-neglect-in-divorce-criminal-and-immigration-cases/
[viii] The Florida Bar. (2023, March 1). March 1, 2023 Disciplinary Actions. https://www.floridabar.org/the-florida-bar-news/march-1-2023-disciplinary-actions/
[ix] DeWitt, Jr., M. (2022, July 13). Alex Murdaugh officially disbarred by South Carolina Supreme Court. Greenville News. https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/2022/07/13/alex-murdaugh-news-officially-disbarred-sc-supreme-court/10044376002/
[x] Zavieh, M. (2022, June 4). Recovery After Bar Discipline. Attorney At Work. https://www.attorneyatwork.com/recovery-bar-discipline/
[xii] American Bar Association. (2020, July 16). Rule 25, Model Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/resources/lawyer_ethics_regulation/model_rules_for_lawyer_disciplinary_enforcement/rule_25/
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