Lawyers are considered the guardians of society's laws. To that end, they are responsible for maintaining the highest standards of ethical behavior and following a specific code of conduct. Specifically, most lawyers must agree to uphold the Model Rules of Professional Conduct adopted by the American Bar Association (with the exception of lawyers in California, who must follow a similar code outlined in the California Rules of Professional Conduct).

The code of professional conduct outlines three areas that must be followed: canons, ethical considerations and disciplinary rules. Attorneys who fail to follow the guidelines as outlined in the code may face disciplinary action, including disbarment.

What is disbarment?

Disbarment is the action of stripping the law license from an attorney in the state in which they practice law, and it is generally imposed as a sanction by the state bar association if they determine that the attorney is no longer fit to practice law.

Disbarment is quite rare. Often, instead of disbarment, it is more likely that lawyers will face fines, suspensions or penalties from the disciplinary board, or have civil claims filed against them by clients.

Common Reasons for Disbarment

Although disbarment is uncommon, there are several reasons why a lawyer could be disbarred. Note that disbarment laws vary by state, so if you have questions about specific reasons for disbarment in your state, you will need to review your state’s disbarment laws. There may be additional reasons for disbarment in your state that are not listed below:

1. Committing an act involving moral turpitude, dishonesty or corruption

Attorneys may face disbarment if they are involved in theft, embezzlement, and fraudulent or reckless misappropriation. They may also be disbarred if they misapply funds or property while acting as a fiduciary, or take actions to solicit another party to commit these crimes.

Specifically, the duty of a lawyer is to put the interests of the client before their own interests. If a lawyer holds money for a client, or is responsible for a client’s money, and they decide to steal it and use if for their own personal use, this is illegal and the sanctions can include disbarment.

Additionally, attorneys who are given money to perform legal services are required to perform those services or provide a refund. Not performing contracted services and trying to defraud the client in some way is also subject to disbarment.

2. Conviction of a serious crime

Attorneys convicted of a serious crime may be disbarred. For example, if a crime is committed and the attorney is convicted, the state bar association will review the case and determine whether the crime involved moral turpitude. More specifically, does the crime call into question the honesty, integrity and the ability of the lawyer to perform their duties? If it does, the board can disbar the lawyer.

3. Willful disobedience or violation of a court order

Attorneys, as officers of the court, have a duty to maintain respect for the court. Under some conditions, a lawyer may be disbarred if it is determined that their actions are potentially detrimental to the judicial process. This includes violating a court order related to the attorney’s oath, their duties, or their members' practice of law.

Although one act of contempt may not be grounds for disbarment, the bar association maintains that if a lawyer is frequently and repeatedly punished for contempt, this is sufficient evidence that they are unfit to practice law.

4. Sexual relations with clients

Attorneys may be disbarred when they require or demand sexual relations with a client in exchange for legal services. This includes using coercion, undue influence or intimidation to force sexual relations.

5. Failing to fulfill bar association requirements

A lawyer may be disbarred for failing to follow certain rules of conduct established by their state bar association. For example, lawyers who lie on their bar application or who do not fulfill the state-mandated requirements, such as continuing education requirements, may be disbarred.

6. Repeatedly initiating frivolous litigation

Disbarment may occur if a lawyer continually files frivolous lawsuits that are determined to result in significant harm to an individual or to the administration of justice. Although one frivolous lawsuit does not constitute a reason for disbarment, disbarment may be appropriate if the bar association determines that there is a pattern of misconduct.

Can a disbarred lawyer get reinstated?

Disbarment is not permanent in most states. However, because it is saved for only the most serious offenses, few lawyers are reinstated after disbarment. It’s important to note, though, that there are certain states that do consider disbarment permanent.

States that do allow reinstatement generally require individuals to wait for a specified time before the case is reviewed. Other states require a full hearing of the character and fitness of the lawyer, and require the lawyer to retake the bar exam.

Bottom line: Even if a state allows reinstatement after disbarment, legal experts note that the process is long and very expensive, and offers no assurance for success. For this reason, few lawyers apply for reinstatement.