The State Bar licenses attorneys to practice in California. It also investigates complaints against attorneys and determines whether lawyers accused of unethical conduct should be disciplined. When complaints are filed with the State Bar, they are investigated by the Office of Chief Trial Counsel.
After the investigation is complete and if charges are justified, the State Bar discusses the grievance with the attorney and how to resolve it. If no settlement is reached, State Bar Court holds a hearing to review the charges. After reviewing the evidence, a State Bar Court judge determines whether the attorney should face discipline, such as suspension or disbarment. The proposed discipline then goes before the California Supreme Court for final review.
If criminal conduct is suspected, the State Bar may also refer the matter to a law enforcement agency for investigation and potential prosecution.
Besides complaints, the State Bar requires attorneys to report incidents to the State Bar that may affect their ability to practice law. These incidents include:
In addition to activities that may affect their own licenses to practice, attorneys must tell the State Bar and their clients when they employ a current or former State Bar member who has been suspended. Learn more about reporting requirements.
The duty to inform the State Bar of various incidents falls on attorneys and on a variety of other agencies and groups:
Find the forms to report these activities.
Attorneys who have a fee dispute with a client are required to notify the client about their right to fee arbitration. Find out more about Mandatory Fee Arbitration.
What kinds of violations typically result in disbarment and other levels of discipline?
Each case is different. But most disbarred attorneys fall into one of two categories: They committed a very serious violation, such as perjury or stealing client funds, or they have a history of misconduct.
Reproval, either public or private, usually is reserved for first-time offenders whose misconduct falls on the low end of the scale.
For example, abandoning one client might lead to a private reproval or remedial action, such as Ethics School. Abandoning 12 clients, however, would likely result in much more serious discipline.
An attorney is placed on probation so that his or her conduct in the practice of law can be monitored - much like supervised probation in the criminal justice system.
Occasionally, another practicing attorney -- serving as a probation monitor -- meets with the disciplined attorney. The disciplined attorney then files regular reports and could be required to meet special conditions during the probationary period. Most conditions of probation are monitored by the Probation Unit.