To change attorneys in the middle of a case or other legal matter is disruptive, time-consuming and potentially stressful. When you're forced to change attorneys because your lawyer has been disbarred, it's an even more difficult situation. Knowing that the attorney did something egregious enough to require disciplinary action, you're likely to wonder if you might have been receiving sub-par legal representation. It helps to understand what disbarment is, and how it can happen.
What is Disbarment?
When an attorney is disbarred, he loses his professional license and is banned from practicing law. In general, disbarment occurs when it is determined that a lawyer is unfit to practice law. However, disbarment is usually a punishment of last resort; usually other disciplinary actions will first be taken before an attorney is disbarred. He might be censured, reprimanded, fined, suspended, required to undergo counseling or required take continuing educational classes. However, some circumstances are serious enough that an attorney will be disbarred immediately, without first receiving a lesser punishment. These circumstances vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but many will automatically disbar an attorney who has been convicted of a felony or other serious crime.
Because lawyers may be licensed in several jurisdictions, disbarment in one jurisdiction doesn't automatically mean a lawyer is disbarred nationwide. But when a lawyer is disbarred in one place, it paves the way for him to be disbarred in other states.
Interestingly, disbarment is not always permanent. A disbarred attorney can petition to have his license reinstated. For this reason, before hiring an attorney it is prudent to contact the bar association or commission that licenses attorneys in your area to ask if your prospective attorney has previously been subject to disciplinary action.
What Happens To Your Legal Matter
In the United States, we believe that people are innocent until proven guilty. That same concept holds true in the case of attorney disciplinary proceedings. Your attorney is usually under no obligation to tell current clients if he's being investigated for a possible disciplinary action. He's only required to notify you if he's subject to disciplinary action that will render him unable to represent you.
Attorneys are usually required to notify clients (as well as co-counsel and opposing counsel) within 10 days of being disbarred or suspended. Most jurisdictions require clients to be notified by certified mail.
If you paid in advance or legal work that hasn't yet been performed, those fees should be automatically refunded, typically within 10 days of being disbarred or suspended. The attorney is also required to return any case files to you. You will have to hire a new attorney to represent you, and those case files should help bring that lawyer up to up to speed on your legal matters.
The committee responsible for attorney discipline will also notify all local courts of an attorney's suspension or disbarment. If you have an ongoing case, the judge should be aware that you'll be changing attorneys and understanding if your new attorney asks the court to push back scheduled hearings until he gets up to speed on your matter. If you're involved in a legal matter being handled outside of the courts, be honest and open with the other parties involved. If you let them know why you're changing lawyers, people should be willing to accept reasonable delays.
In rare instances, a disciplined attorney may not follow the required steps to notify clients and return case files. If that happens, a judge will usually appoint another lawyer to carry out those responsibilities and notify clients. This trustee is not is not your new attorney, but is simply facilitating the process so you can find a new attorney.