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What gets a California lawyer disbarred?

Everyone makes mistakes. Even lawyers. But lawyers are held to higher standards than most other people. This is largely due to the trust their clients place in them and the expectation to repay that trust in good faith. As a result, there are standards for conduct that go beyond your ability to get results, and any failure to uphold these standards can lead to discipline—or getting yourself disbarred.

The good news is that very few complaints lead to disciplinary action. When the Los Angeles Sentinel looked at the matter, it found the State Bar received 15,973 complaints against lawyers in 2018. Of these, only 661 led to discipline. Only 131 attorneys were disbarred. But if you ever face a complaint that could lead to discipline, you want to take it seriously.

Statistics show the value of representation

According to a recent article in the ABA Journal, there were significant racial disparities among the California lawyers who faced disciplinary action. This was true for complaints, probations and disbarments. Black men were most disadvantaged.

The article pointed to a study that showed:

  • Black men were over three times more likely than whites to be placed on probation
  • Black men were nearly four times more likely than whites to be disbarred
  • Black men were four times more likely than whites to receive 10 or more complaints
  • In each case, men were more likely to face complaints and discipline than women
  • In each case, black attorneys were most heavily targeted, followed by Latinos, whites and Asians

These statistics show that being a black male lawyer in California means you’re more likely than other lawyers to face disbarment or probation. This is largely a function of the way the public filed its complaints, but the ABA Journal also noted that black lawyers were less likely to be represented before the State Bar than their peers.

You want an effective response

California disbarred 107 attorneys in 2019. You don’t want to be one of them. Many of the State Bar’s decisions were rather clear-cut, such as its summary disbarments for felony convictions involving moral turpitude. Others, however, might have stemmed from cases in which the attorney could have presented a better defense:

  • 15 disbarments involved a failure to comply with a probation that might have been avoided at an earlier stage
  • 7 of the disbarments involved questions of the attorney’s competence
  • 12 disbarments owed to the handling of client funds
  • 5 disbarments cited “misconduct”
  • 1 attorney was disbarred, in part, for filing frivolous motions

If any of these attorneys had mounted a better defense, they might still be able to practice law in California.

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