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