Lawyers are members of bar associations. Some bar associations, like each individual State’s Bar Association, require mandatory membership if you want to legally practice law in that state. Other bar associations are voluntary. These can be subject-matter bar associations, like the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; local bar associations, like the Walton County Bar Association; or affinity bar associations like the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers. You can join voluntary bar associations or not, but they don’t affect your ability to practice law. The American Bar Association is a voluntary bar association.
In order to become a member of the State’s Bar Association, you have to pass the bar exam. It’s been almost 30 years since I took the Bar Exam, but as far as I know the basic format hasn’t changed – there is a multi-state part, which is a multiple-choice exam that is the same one given in all 50 states. It tests you on basic legal knowledge. Then there is a state-specific part, which is generally an essay exam. It takes two days to take the exam, and it is seriously intense. Back in the pre-digital age when I took it, they inspected everything you came in with, even making you pre-unwrap your gum and peppermints, so you didn’t make any extraneous noise or scribble some cheat codes on the wrappers. They had potty monitors to make sure you didn’t speak or pass notes in the commode.
Nowadays, whenever a lawyer says or does something questionable in a public forum, I hear people say things like, “They should take away his license to practice law” or “They should disbar her.” Whether or not I agree with the underlying sentiment, it isn’t quite that simple.
Being lawyers, we are big fans of due process. As embarrassing as some of our colleagues may be, we (collectively) have been around long enough to know that there is always another side to the story, sometimes two or three or ten more sides to the story, and whatever the truth is you are unlikely to get it on social media or from a five-minute news story. A bar association can’t do anything until a complaint has been made to the bar association, just like the police can’t do anything until someone calls the police.
Once a complaint is made, the bar has to look and see if the complaint, if true, violates any of its rules. Let’s say you call the police because you see your neighbor putting roasted crickets on a peanut butter sandwich. You think this is a crime against nature, and it may very well be disgusting to a lot of people (including me), but it isn’t against the law, so the police aren’t going to do anything about it. Likewise, if you are complaining that the lawyer has done something distasteful but not against the rules, the bar isn’t going to do anything about it.
Assuming there is a complaint and the bar thinks the complaint, if true, would violate the rules, they give the allegedly offending lawyer the chance to explain themselves. This works differently in the different states, but there is always a process. There is no, “I saw that video of you on the news and now you can no longer earn a living in your chosen profession.” There is an investigation. There is evidence. There is the opportunity for defense.
Once in a blue moon, something needs to be done on an emergency basis. This happens if a lawyer appears to have had a psychic break or is chronically under the influence of drugs or alcohol to the point where it affects his day-to-day functioning. In that case, there can be an emergency suspension. Even then, it isn’t permanent disbarment – the emergency suspension just holds things in place until there can be a real investigation and process before actual disbarment is considered.
Lawyers are not so quick to convict, especially our own. We know what’s at stake – the undoing of years and years of education and study and work and practice. Remember that the next time you call for disbarment of someone who just has a different opinion than you do or who might have made a human mistake.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.