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Incompetence and Beyond: 3 Surefire Ways to Get Disbarred

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. | Last updated on

Lawyers get a bad rap for being scheming crooks, but that's mostly for over-zealous advocacy, which is perfectly legal. On the other hand, there are a few surefire ways to ruin a good reputation and welcome-in early retirement. For example, these three actions will basically guarantee disbarment:

1. Messing With Client Funds

Here's an easy way to get in trouble with the bar: playing funny games with client funds. Funds are kept in escrow until earned and accounted for. This rule is so sacrosanct as to carry an almost mythical aura. Yet, some attorneys just aren't capable of resisting temptation...

In 2014, the Appellate Division Court in New York determined that suspended lawyer Rudolph D'Amato breached his fiduciary duty to his client by failing to comply to filing as his client's attorney. Instead, he misappropriated $1 million in his client's money.

In another case in 2005, a lawyer in New York's Chinatown pleaded guilty to charges of grand larceny when he was accused of siphoning off more than $800,000 from a handful of clients to fund his gambling addiction in Atlantic City. This is a rule that any lawyer should know: do not touch unearned client money.

2. Sleeping With Your Client

Although the ABA rules of professional responsibility allow lawyers to sleep with their clients in limited circumstances -- control yourself! In the case of New Jersey lawyer Kenneth Denti, he submitted falsified time sheets (cf. above) for years totaling expenses of $350,000, expensed meals with women he met on the Internet, and slept with his firm's client. Later during disciplinary proceedings, Denti was questioned as to the female client's "soreness." According to Denti, it wasn't the sexual activity to blame, but her use of his backyard trampoline.

3. Inexplicable Incompetence

Sometimes the facts are stranger than fiction. The case of Dennis Hawver probably takes the prize for this year's most notable disbarment based on grounds of "inexplicable incompetence." During a trial in 2005, rather than defending his own client, Dennis Hawver successfully convinced a jury to give his client the death penalty. He even declared, "I am in competent!" to Kansas' Highest Court.

Hawver's gaffes were so numerous that it stretches the imagination. On top of dressing up as Thomas Jefferson at his competency hearing, he intimated that the Supreme's Court interpretation of the Constitution has no bearing on citizen rights. He also called his client a professional "shooter of people," failed to investigate an alibi because he claimed ignorance of cell phone GPS tracking, and impeached his own client. He also defended his client by suggesting that he would not have left any survivors and would have stayed to finish the job.

The Kansas Supreme Court ordered Hawver's disbarment and granted his client a new trial.

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