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Slap in the Face
Disbarred attorneys unworthy of a place in the legal community.
By Vanessa Beam, CLAS

July/August 2001 Issue

Some things in life cause me to scratch my head and wonder why they are the way they are.

Such is the case with the December 2000 amendment of Rule 217 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Disciplinary Enforcement. I simply don’t understand this ruling, which allows disbarred or suspended lawyers to be paralegals (see May/June 2001, Legal Assistant Today). Pardon me, but if a lawyer can’t make it in his or her own profession, why should he or she be dumped on ours?

This ruling is a slap in the face to the thousands of men and women who have worked so hard to make the paralegal profession what it is today and what it will become.

Is making a suspended or disbarred lawyer (also known as a “formerly admitted attorney”) a paralegal really going to solve anything? To allow a suspended attorney back into a law office makes about as much sense as putting a wolf in a hen house.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court may think its ruling is a good way to keep track of suspended attorneys, or that relegating a formerly admitted attorney into a paralegal position is a direct punishment. I suspect that while the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s heart is in the right place, the outcome of its amendment is purely misguided.

If the Pennsylvania Supreme Court intended to take action for the benefit of its attorneys and the general public, its efforts would have been better spent in taking a proactive role towards the education of attorneys.

For me, the buck stops at the point of disbarment. Under no circumstances should a disbarred attorney be allowed any kind of role in law. If an attorney can’t be trusted to act ethically in the first place, and if his or her actions are so egregious as to merit disbarment, then he or she is unworthy in the legal community. While I respect the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s desire to keep tabs on formerly admitted attorneys during periods of suspension, I can’t grasp the idea that the legal community owes any duty to disbarred attorneys to keep them.

The April 2001 online edition of the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal contains an article by Elizabeth J. Cohen titled, “The Scarlet ‘L’: A suspended or disbarred lawyer has a tough time getting any legal work.” This article outlines rules of practice from Illinois and Indiana (preventing suspended or disbarred lawyers from maintaining a presence or occupying an office where the practice of law takes place), as well as Wisconsin (forbidding disbarred lawyers from engaging in work customarily done by law students, law clerks or paralegals).

Decisions and rulings from Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas restricting the delivery of legal services by disbarred attorneys are also highlighted.

One of the great principles of America is the concept of liberty and justice for all. If misfit lawyers are unwelcome in their own profession, exactly where is the justice in forcing them on the paralegal profession? Why not give these disbarred lawyers the justice they deserve by ostracizing them, shunning their presence in the legal industry? To permit these miscreants to remain in the legal profession in any capacity undermines the seriousness of their offenses.

I don’t believe lawyer suspensions are conferred lightly, but rather that the incidents leading to suspension occur on many occasions prior to the institution of disciplinary proceedings. I believe if violators were removed from their chosen profession as a form of punishment for their actions, a glaring message would be sent to offenders, potential offenders and the general public. I strongly support the idea of adopting a “zero tolerance” policy for disbarred attorneys. The best thing we can do for formerly admitted attorneys — and for ourselves — is not to befriend them. These people have made their beds, and they need to lie in them — alone.

Why should we reduce ourselves to the level of disbarred attorneys by accepting them as paralegals? Are nurses forced to accept formerly licensed physicians into their ranks? I think not. The legal assistant profession simply must upgrade its own standards to resist being forced to associate with disbarred attorneys on any level. Clearly the amendment to Rule 217 serves only to promote unauthorized practice of law (UPL), to sully the standards of the paralegal profession, and to send the wrong message to the general public.

Promotion of Unauthorized Practice of Law
We all know how difficult it is to avoid practicing law without a license, even the failure to disclose one’s nonlawyer status constitutes UPL. Someone who has made a career of being an attorney will find it very difficult to stop giving legal advice.

Imagine how uncomfortable it must be for a formerly admitted attorney to be placed under the direct supervision of his or her peers, not to mention how awkward the situation must be for the now-supervising attorney, the firm’s staff and its clients. Can we be sure that a formerly admitted attorney is being properly supervised in his or her new nonlawyer capacity? Can we be guaranteed that the now-supervising attorney will take his or her supervisory obligations seriously?

It’s unrealistic to expect an attorney to suddenly turn a colleague or contemporary relationship into a supervisory relationship such as that of an attorney to a paralegal. Can we be assured the now-supervising attorney will act with the same diligence in the supervision of the disbarred attorney as he or she would in the supervision of a paralegal? This person with whom the now-supervising attorney is working is not just a paralegal — he or she is a lawyer. Simply put, cavalier attitudes will free disbarred lawyers to continue practicing law without the formality of a license, and the dangers that situation presents will continue to plague the general public.

Sullying the Paralegal Profession
Over the course of the last 25 years, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), their affiliated associations and countless individuals have worked hard to establish strict codes of ethics and professional conduct.

The codes of ethics and professional conduct endorsed by these organizations are voluntary in nature and are more stringent than those proscribed for attorneys.

If an attorney is condemned for violation of the ethical obligations of his or her profession, it certainly stands to reason that he or she will be unwilling to abide by the paralegal profession’s more strict ethical standards and rules of conduct.

We simply can’t place our faith and our future in people who have been proven untrustworthy to maintain standards. It’s obvious that by accepting disbarred attorneys into our ranks — whether by choice or by force — we sully the very standards by which the paralegal profession is defined. When we roll with the dogs, surely we will come up with fleas.

Sending the Wrong Message to the General Public
The attorneys the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeks to assist under the terms of Rule 217 are the very ones from whom the public deserves maximum protection.

These disbarred lawyers have committed crimes against public trust. Placing disbarred lawyers back in the law office underscores that the infractions these persons have committed are of no consequence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s amendment trivializes both the role of the paralegal in the legal industry and the faith and trust placed in them by their supervising attorneys and their firms’ clientele. This amendment seems to advise the public that lawyers — even ones who have lost their licenses — are of more importance and greater competence than paralegals. Certainly this amendment is misleading at best. It’s better to receive the services of a professional paralegal properly practicing under the direct supervision of a licensed attorney than it is to receive the services of a disbarred lawyer in any capacity.

What Now?
Disbarred lawyers are armed with plenty of legal knowledge, by virtue of training and experience, but they must be recognized for the dangers they present. They can’t be trusted to follow the straight and narrow path required by their profession. They have no place in the paralegal profession, and they have no place in the legal community.

As professional paralegals, it’s incumbent upon us to educate the attorneys with whom we practice so as to promote recognition of the disgrace disbarred lawyers cast on the legal profession. We must lobby bar associations, legislators, professional organizations and the people in our communities to foster “zero tolerance” policies for disbarred lawyers. We must encourage our lawmakers to require sequestration of disbarred lawyers from the legal industry, to require retraining and participation in strict ethics re-education programs, and to encourage permanent disbarment for those attorneys who are suspended on multiple occasions. We must encourage NALA, NFPA and our local paralegal organizations to raise public awareness that disbarred lawyers don’t make good paralegals, and further, we should teach by example through continuing to promote the growth and advancement of the paralegal profession and its high ethical standards.

This is all about standards, so let’s stand up and be counted for the betterment of the legal community and paralegals everywhere.

Vanessa Beam, CLAS, is employed with the law firm of Rusen & White in Parkersburg, W.Va. A paralegal since 1988 and a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants, Beam earned her certified legal assistant (CLA) designation in 1977 and her CLAS specialty credential in civil litigation in 1999.

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