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Can You Still Work If You Are Suspended From the Practice of Law?

Over the years, we've seen lawyers disciplined and suspended from practice for hundreds of different reasons: publishing allegedly false statements about local judges on their blogs, representing both parties in a personal injury suit, falsifying eDiscovery documents, even insulting colleagues. (Not to mention the many sex with clients scandals.)

But does a suspension mean that an attorney can't work at all for that period? Not necessarily.

Rule 27's Suspension Requirements

Rule 27 of the ABA Model Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement makes it clear that a suspension from practice means a complete halt to your current legal work. Rule 27 sets forth the requirements suspended lawyers must meet, from notifying clients and opposing counsel, to returning client papers and property, to withdrawing from representation. And these requirements must be followed to the letter, even if your suspension is for just one month and a client wishes to take you back on as soon as possible.

But while a suspension means you can't represent clients, it doesn't necessarily mean that you must be completely out of work.

Working in the Law as a Suspended Attorney

Several states allow suspended attorneys to work for other lawyers during their suspension, in a limited capacity. California's Rule of Professional Conduct 1-311, for example, allows bar members to employ "a disbarred, suspended, resigned, or involuntarily inactive member" for tasks such as legal research, drafting, and clerical activities. The employing lawyer must notify both the state bar and individual clients when taking on a suspended attorney and cannot allow the attorney to engage in specific acts such as the rendering of legal advice, representation of clients, or handling of client funds.

In 1979, the ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released an informal opinion on the employment of disbarred lawyers. While it focused on those who have been fully excluded from the practice of law, rather than temporarily suspended, the gist is applicable to suspended attorneys as well: an employing lawyer cannot aid a suspended lawyer in the unauthorized practice of law. That means no employing suspended lawyers in tasks that would, in a particular state, constitute practice.

In addition to California's Rule 1-311 and the ABA's informal opinion, many state and local bars have their own ethics opinions on the employment of suspended or disbarred lawyers. Peter Geraghty, director of ETHICSearch, does a good job rounding them up here. And they're not all as accommodating as California or the ABA. Washington State, for example, declares that:

A disbarred lawyer may not be employed as a paralegal or law clerk, may not be employed to do legal research or writing, or work as a law office secretary or other office employee. Neither may a disbarred lawyer be employed as an investigator, messenger or accountant in connection with a lawyer's law practice...

The bar does allow attorneys to "employ a disbarred lawyer in other, nonlaw-related capacities," however, such as "mowing lawns or washing windows."

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