Next Step for Disbarred Attorney: a Paralegal Job?

by Jan Hill

Most paralegals enter the profession via traditional methods, such as through experience working in a legal capacity or by completing a paralegal educational program. But some paralegals are actually disbarred and suspended attorneys who have reinvented themselves.

While no state seems to be outwardly in favor of this practice, only six–Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Wisconsin—expressly prohibit it. Of the six, Massachusetts currently has a ban on disbarred and suspended attorneys working as paralegals, with one exception— after serving five years of their suspension or disbarment, attorneys may seek permission from the state bar to work as paralegals.

This notable exception may be seen as an attempt to help rehabilitate attorneys who demonstrate that they have changed and deserve another chance. It is significant because it places disbarred and suspended attorneys into the same category when, in reality, the conduct that caused an attorney to become disbarred is much more serious than that which prompted a suspension.

The rest of the states allow disbarred or suspended attorneys to work in a paralegal capacity but place limits on the duties that they may perform. As paralegals, these individuals are not allowed to hold themselves out as attorneys, offer legal advice, sign legal documents and represent clients in court. 

So if an attorney hires a disbarred or suspended colleague to do paralegal work while he waits for reinstatement, is he helping to rehabilitate him or simply looking for trouble?

When a disciplined attorney finds a way to remain engaged in the practice of law, the public typically perceives the attorney as taking advantage of a loophole by finding a way to dilute or avoid punishment. This is often seen as committing unethical behavior without consequence, and it tarnishes the whole legal profession.

Wouldn’t it be hard for someone who was once a practicing attorney to get used to the somewhat limited duties of a paralegal? Unless the suspended or disbarred attorney blatantly signs pleadings or attempts to represent a client in court, it is up to his supervising attorney to pinpoint exactly when he crosses the line from performing acceptable paralegal work into the unauthorized practice of law. Remember, it’s the supervising attorney who takes responsibility for supervising a paralegal, whether or not the paralegal wants to be supervised.

Allowing a disbarred or suspended attorney to work as a paralegal  undermines the disciplinary authority of state bar associations. The American Bar Association has a policy regarding an attorney’s employment in the legal profession following suspension or disbarment. Rule 27(G) of the ABA Model Rules of Procedure for Disciplinary Proceedings “prohibits any suspended or disbarred lawyer from maintaining a presence or occupying an office where the practice of law is conducted.”

This policy seems pretty straight-forward. Maybe it’s time for all the states to require disciplined attorneys to serve their time before they are allowed back into a legal environment. Doing so would help the legal profession be the honorable and ethical calling it is intended to be.

If we don’t discipline ourselves, the world will do it for us. ~William Feather


Kel September 10, 2012 at 2:40 pm

I worked as a paralegal for almost 9 years and am surprised by this article. Paralegals have no authority whatsoever and simply prepare documents that are then reviewed by their employer/attorney, maintain calendars, great clients, keep client folders organized, prep paperwork prior to trials, etc…. They cannot appear in court, they cannot practice law and have to be very careful when speaking to clients so they don’t give that appearance. What could a disbarred attorney do that would cause harm as a paralegal?

Rusty Solomon June 25, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Great post. keep the good work up.very nice website Thanks

Rusty Solomon

Franklin C. Pierce, Jr. August 23, 2011 at 10:10 pm

re: “Maybe it’s time for all the states to require disciplined attorneys to serve their time before they are allowed back into a legal environment. ”

What about permanently disbarred lawyers? I am one, and when our state took my license, they did so without recourse. I can never again practice law. So, do I now have to move on to another career that has no affiliation with the practice of law? What possible purpose is served by telling lawyers in my state that they can’t even hire me to take out the trash? Under the present laws, I cannot even use my computer networking background to market software / hardware to law offices–it’s just too risky for the lawyers.

I agree some unscrupulous souls will use the “paralegal” label to keep on practicing law during suspension or after disbarment, but those “bad eggs” are preventing me from even being tangentially affiliated with an arena in which I worked for two (2) decades.

Your blog entry on this topic strikes close to home, and I honestly cannot comprehend what public interest is being served by preventing those of us who have suffered the grave misfortune of disbarment from remaining in the periphery of the legal field.

janmhill August 23, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Franklin–You’ve made some good points, and I thank you for your comments. Having your whole livelihood taken from you along with your license to practice law must be shattering. I know how much I love and am intriqued by the law; to have to move on to a completely unrelated career would be extremely difficult for me too. Best of luck to you.

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