Most lawyers who give up their licenses or have it taken away never again work as attorneys. But it is generally possible for a lawyer to be reinstated and earn back their right to be a lawyer. Thus, you as a client may encounter a lawyer who once was disbarred but now can be your lawyer again.
The question is: Should you? In other words, if someone was once disbarred for some form of misconduct should you even consider working with them if they get their law license back?
I suggest that you tread carefully, but it would be a mistake to automatically exclude or disqualify working for a lawyer who was previously disbarred.
Before analyzing this question, let’s clarify when this issue even comes up.
Before deciding whether to work with a previously disbarred lawyer, that lawyer needs to be otherwise qualified to handle your case or issue. They need be affordable and available and have the right expertise. If they don’t have these qualities, you shouldn’t be working with them whether or not they have been disbarred before of have had any disciplinary history. So the question of working with a disbarred lawyer comes up only if there is a good reason to believe that they would otherwise be a good fit for you. In practical terms, that means that you need to decide whether you would consider interviewing a lawyer who was once disbarred.
As indicated above, my answer is a qualified yes. You should consider working with such a lawyer. I would interview them. Most of the time, you will probably decide to work with a different lawyer—one that doesn’t have a disciplinary history. But before deciding whether to interview a lawyer who lost their license and was later reinstated, you need to evaluate two primary issues.
First, you need to know what the lawyer did to lose his or her license. There are certain offenses that for me are pretty much disqualifying even if an attorney has been reinstated. For example, if the lawyer embezzled money or cheated their clients, I suggest that you look elsewhere. There are enough honest lawyers out there where you don’t need to consider working with one who was a cheat. This may sound harsh. I know that we are a country that likes to give people a second chance, and that we believe in redemption. But there are certain offenses that are so severe that I think you as a client are better off just finding another lawyer.
But contrary to what most people think, lawyers can be disbarred for a whole range of technical violations that don’t implicate their basic competence or honesty. For example, many lawyers lose their license for mishandling client funds; they might deposit a check in the wrong account and inadvertently bounce a check. In many states that is considered to be the equivalent of stealing and lawyers get disbarred for it. Lawyers are also subject to all sorts of rules about things such as when they can talk to witnesses, whether they can they split fees with other lawyers, how they supervise their staff members, and how they advertise their services. In some states lawyers can also lose their license or have it taken away for activities that solely relate to their personal lives, such as drinking and driving. So you have to decide for yourself just how serious the lawyer’s offense was, and whether it is relevant to the work he or she might do for you.
The second factor you need to consider is what is involved in getting reinstated. In some states, such as California, lawyers who are disbarred need to wait a minimum of five years before they can even apply to be reinstated. In addition, if their offense involved causing former clients to lose money, they are generally required to reimburse those victims. In addition, a fairly high percentage of lawyers who have been disbarred need to demonstrate that they have the skills to manage a law office or that their drinking or drug problems are behind them. In short, some states make lawyers jump through a lot of hoops before they are permitted to even apply to get their license back. So you should find out what is requited in your state.
But as a general rule, the tougher a state is on lawyers seeking to be reinstated, the more you should consider at least interviewing a lawyer who did jump through all the required hoops. If a lawyer managed to convince the state bar that they are worthy again of being a lawyer, perhaps they might be the right choice for you. In some states, this much easier to do than others, so look into what your particular state requires of lawyers who were once disbarred.
Ultimately you have to decide whether or not to interview or consider hiring a lawyer who was previously disbarred. This can be an intensely personal and emotional decision. I don’t suggest that you hire a previously disbarred lawyer only to give them another chance. Clients need lawyers to help them with some of the most important issues and problem they confront in their lives. This is not the time simply to be charitable. You need to make the right decision for yourself; you need to find a lawyer who you like and trust and has the requisite experience. But depending on what the lawyer did, how difficult the reinstatement process is, and the extent to which the lawyer has the right skill and experience to help you, I would at least consider hiring a previously disbarred lawyer.
And by all means if you do interview a lawyer who has been reinstated, you should talk to them about what happened, what they learned in the process, and how they can assure you that the mistakes they made to get disbarred won’t happen again. Most of all, interview them just like you any other lawyer. Ask them the tough questions that will help you determine if they are the right lawyer for you and your situation.