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What Does It Really Take to Get Disbarred?

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

In the annals of what state bars can do to a lawyer, being disbarred ranks number one on the list. Lawyer TV shows frequently trot out disbarment as a punishment for things like lying to the court or breaking client confidentiality, leading civilians to think that it happens a lot.

Disbarment, though, is pretty rare, and reserved for only the most heinous offenses. Low-level offenders usually just get suspended, and if they did something particularly nasty, the state bar makes them re-take the bar exam.

So what does it really take to get disbarred?

Stealing Client Money

Oh, yeah, that'll do it. Precious little stops lawyers from absconding with every last dollar a client has, other than a thin veil of trust. This layer of trust is the reason why state bars obsess over moral uprightness: It's not enough that a lawyer doesn't do bad things because he or she doesn't want to be punished. A lawyer must affirmatively do the right thing because it is the right thing.

Obviously, stealing client money qualifies. And we're not talking those highly technical MPRE questions where the lawyer deposits more than is necessary into the client account to cover the bank fees. We're talking whole-hog writing checks for personal expenses out of the client account. Often, the lawyer rationalizes such an act by saying he's just "borrowing," but eventually that rings hollow. Just ask Thomas Corea, disbarred and convicted in 2013 for stealing hundreds of thousands from clients. He took money from new client settlements to pay old ones, starting a vicious cycle.

Don't steal.

Really Incompetent Conduct

Look no further than our favorite Thomas-Jefferson-dressing-up defense attorney, Ira Dennis Hawver, who was accused of (1) woefully under-preparing (2) for a capital murder defense, having (3) never tried a capital case and (4) declining help from experienced lawyers at indigent defense services. His brilliant theory of the case, by the way? That the defendant was such an experienced murderer, so you can guarantee it wasn't him because he wouldn't have had to fire that many shots to kill the victim.

Hawver dressed as Thomas Jefferson during his presentation to the Kansas Supreme Court and actually argued that he had a First Amendment right to a trial strategy of his choice, whether or not it was objectively terrible. A month after this oral argument, the court unanimously disbarred Hawver for his "inexplicable incompetence."

Don't be an idiot.

A Pattern of Violations

Sometimes, a lot of things can add up over the years that, standing alone, would merit maybe a suspension. But a repeated pattern of ethical violations can result in the state bar throwing up their hands in desperation and taking a law license away. Joyce Griggs of Savannah, Georgia, was disbarred from federal practice in 2004 following "a history of failing to meet deadlines, tardiness, and a general disregard for court rules." That earned her disbarment from Georgia state courts under a "rule of reciprocal discipline."

Don't be tardy.

The good news (or not) is that some states allow disbarred lawyers to eventually apply for readmission. The bad news, according to the ABA, is that only about 10% of lawyers who apply for reinstatement actually get reinstated. The easiest thing to do, of course, is not to lie, cheat, or steal.

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