Here’s some free risk management advice: if a lawyer in your firm has been disbarred, don’t let them continue hanging around the office and chatting with clients – even if they happen to be your spouse.
Otherwise you’ll likely find yourself in disciplinary trouble for aiding the unauthorized practice of law.
It happened in Illinois, where an attorney was censured after his wife kept coming to the office several days a week to use office equipment and participate in client meetings, according to the ABA Journal. She also deposited client fees into the firm account. The only problem: she had been disbarred a year earlier for misappropriating $2.34 million.
The Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission found two grounds for discipline: failing to ensure that the spouse no longer maintained a presence in the office, and failing to supervise an associate to prevent the associate from aiding in the unauthorized practice of law.
NC Rule of Professional Conduct 5.5
According to North Carolina Rule 5.5(c): “A lawyer or law firm shall not employ a disbarred or suspended lawyer as a law clerk or legal assistant if that individual was associated with such lawyer or law firm at any time on or after the date of the acts which resulted in disbarment or suspension through and including the effective date of disbarment or suspension.”
This rule is intended to prevent situations like the one that occurred in Illinois. Comment  of the rule says it would be “practically impossible for the disciplined lawyer to confine himself or herself to activities not involving the actual practice of law if he or she were employed in his or her former office setting and obliged to deal with the same staff and clientele.”
However, Rule 5.5 (d), allows a disbarred or suspended lawyer to work as a law clerk or legal assistant for a different firm under limited circumstances:
“A lawyer or law firm employing a disbarred or suspended lawyer as a law clerk or legal assistant shall not represent any client represented by the disbarred or suspended lawyer or by any lawyer with whom the disbarred or suspended lawyer practiced during the period on or after the date of the acts which resulted in disbarment or suspension through and including the effective date of disbarment or suspension.”
This rule was applied in 98 FEO 7, which says: “When a disbarred lawyer is employed by another law firm, the disbarred lawyer may attract clients from his former practice to the hiring law firm. As a consequence, it may be difficult for the disbarred lawyer to avoid the unauthorized practice of law with respect to these former clients. More problematic, however, is the possibility that the hiring law firm may be in collusion with the disbarred lawyer to employ the disbarred lawyer in exchange for the disbarred lawyer’s delivery of his former clients to the hiring firm. If so, the firm is showing disrespect for the decision of the DHC and is encouraging unauthorized practice by the disbarred lawyer.”
- ABA Journal http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/illinois_lawyer_is_censured_for_failling_to_keep_disbarred_wife_out/?icn=most_read
- Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois http://www.iardc.org/co_pressreleases_copy91.html
- Illinois disciplinary proceeding http://www.iardc.org/ANS16PR0069.pdf
- NC State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct https://www.ncbar.gov/for-lawyers/ethics/rules-of-professional-conduct/
- NC State Bar 98 FEO 7 https://www.ncbar.gov/for-lawyers/ethics/adopted-opinions/98-formal-ethics-opinion-7/?opinionSearchTerm=disbarred%20paralegal
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. During the course of his 35- year career, he has been a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, legal editor, Legal Aid staff attorney and insurance risk manager. Today he helps lawyers and firms succeed through marketing, work-life balance and reclaiming passion for what they do. He is available for consultations, retreats and presentations (www.yourlawlife.com). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-619-2441 to learn how Jay can help your practice.