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LOSS OF LICENSE: Rules Governing Suspension or Disbarment

by
Dorothy Anderson, Assistant Bar Counsel
February 2010

A. WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU HAVE JUST BEEN SUSPENDED OR DISBARRED

The vast majority of lawyers will never face suspension or disbarment. But for the minority who do, proper navigation of the procedural requirements for suspension or disbarment is critical. Failure to do so may result in a contempt action or bar counsel’s opposition to the lawyer’s petition for reinstatement.

This article is addressed to lawyers who face these issues. Note that these requirements also apply if you are placed on disability inactive status under Supreme Judicial Court Rule 4:01 § 13 or if you have resigned under § 15. Note also that these requirements take effect if you have been administratively suspended for more than 30 days, whether for failure to cooperate with bar counsel or for failure to register.

If you are facing suspension, first and foremost, read Supreme Judicial Court Rule 4:01, § 17. The rule sets forth all the steps you will be required to take when the suspension order is entered. The order of suspension or disbarment will typically incorporate the requirements of the rule. A suspension or disbarment is effective thirty days after the entry of the order unless otherwise ordered by the court. A temporary suspension order is effective immediately.

Once the order issues, you will have 14 days to accomplish a variety of tasks. Get started as soon as possible.

1. Requirements of the Order and S.J.C. Rule 4:01§ 17.

Within fourteen days of the entry of the order you must:
All the notices described above must be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, unless otherwise ordered by the SJC.
Within twenty-one days after the entry date of the order:

B. WHAT TO DO AND WHAT NOT TO DO WHILE YOU ARE SUSPENDED

1. Do Not Practice Law or Engage in Paralegal Work

This rule is strictly construed. There is no exception under which you may represent family members, or a corporation that is controlled by you, or provide pro bono legal services, although you of course may appear for yourself. Attorneys who practice law while suspended may face contempt charges. Your period of suspension may be increased if a court finds that you have practiced while suspended. See S.J.C. Rule 4:01, § 17(8). You may also jeopardize your chances of reinstatement.

The SJC has construed the term “paralegal” to include certain related jobs, such as title examiner (Matter of Eastwood, 10 Mass. Att’y Disc. R. 70, 77) and has also ruled that any preparation of documents for filing in court, even if signed by the client, constitutes the “practice of law” or paralegal work. Matter of Kafkas, 451 Mass. 1001 (2008); Opinion of the Justice, 289 Mass. 607, 612 (1935)

2. Take and Pass the MPRE

If you have been suspended for a period of longer than six months, including six months and a day, you must take and pass the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination before you will be readmitted. See S.J.C. Rule 4:01, § 18(10)(b). In Massachusetts, the examination is given three times per year. You should ascertain the dates of the examination as soon as possible so that you have time to register and prepare. Consult the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners website, http://www.mass.gov/bbe.

3. Comply With Any Conditions of Your Suspension

Some suspension orders contain specific conditions of reinstatement, such as participation in an educational program designated by bar counsel. If your order contains such conditions, make plans to comply as soon as possible.

4. Only Collect Fees and Partnership Shares Earned Prior to Suspension

If you earned fees prior to your suspension, but did not collect those fees, it is permissible to collect the fees while you are suspended. You may take legal action to collect an unpaid fee, but you may only represent yourself individually in such an action; not a partnership or LLC.

A contingent fee agreement where the contingency has not yet occurred is voided by your suspension or disbarment, but you may be able to collect fees on a quantum meruit basis “unless the penalized misconduct was... related to the case in which the services were rendered and for which a fee is sought and impaired the value of the client's cause of action or otherwise imperiled the client's right to relief.” Kourouvacilis v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, 65 Mass.App.Ct. 521, 532 (2006). If it is a matter on which you were the referring attorney and for which you have no further responsibilities or obligations, a referral fee agreement, entered into with written client consent prior to the loss of license, may still be valid.

If you were a member of a law firm or LLP, you may collect the partnership or shareholder distribution shares attributable to a time period in which you were still licensed.

5. No Handling of Client Funds

You may not sign any client checks, handle any client funds or enter into any new fee agreements, including any referral agreements with other attorneys, while you are suspended or disbarred. And you should be removed as a signatory to any law firm IOLTA or trust accounts.

6. Non-Legal Work

You may, of course, engage in non-legal work. Be careful, however, not to venture into areas that may constitute the practice of law or paralegal work, such as drafting a purchase and sale agreement for a party to a real estate transaction. If you have concerns as to whether a given undertaking is permissible, seek clarification from the SJC.

7. Stationery, Cards, Telephone Lines, E-Mail & Websites

You may not use or distribute stationery, cards or other written materials in which you hold yourself out to be a practicing attorney. The same is true of your telephone voice mail recording, e-mail, websites or other electronic communications. Along the same lines, you should not use the titles “Esq.” or “J.D.” as both imply that you are a lawyer.

If you were practicing in a partnership or association with other attorneys, your name must be removed from letterhead, websites, and other promotional materials while you are suspended.

8. Malpractice Insurance

If you have malpractice insurance, consult with your agent or a company representative about the advisabilily of maintaining or discontinuing your coverage.

9. Make Preliminary Preparation for Reinstatement Hearing

If you have been suspended for a year and a day or longer or a reinstatement hearing is a condition of a shorter suspension, and if you intend to seek reinstatement, you may wish to begin preparation by reviewing the Massachusetts case law on reinstatements, as well as Supreme Judicial Court Rule 4:01, § 18; Rules of the Board of Bar Overseers, §§ 3.61-3.67; and the reinstatement questionnaire included as an appendix to the Board rules, http://www.mass.gov/obcbbo/BBORules.pdf.

C. Frequently Asked Questions

Q. I have several matters that are virtually concluded. May I complete them after the order enters?

A. During the period between the entry date of the order and its effective date, you may complete matters that were pending. SJC Rule 4:01, § 17(3). However, you have to be both realistic and fair to your clients. If there is any chance that you will not be able to complete a matter in thirty days, or if rushing the matter to conclusion is not in the client’s interests, the client should be alerted to locate successor counsel.

Q. My suspension order entered yesterday. Today, a new client has offered me $10,000 to make one court appearance that will take place before the effective date of my suspension. May I accept it?

A. No, you may not accept any new retainer or new matter after the entry of the order. SJC Rule 4:01, § 17(3)

Q. I have no clients and no bank accounts and I do not serve as a fiduciary. Do I have to file an affidavit of compliance?

A. Yes. The form affidavit anticipates this response as one of the options.

Q. I have been suspended for only six months. Can I hand my entire practice over to another lawyer while I am suspended, with the understanding that I will take all of the clients back when I am reinstated?

A. No. You are required to withdraw from all representation upon your suspension and your clients have the right to select new counsel. If a client asks you for a recommendation, you may recommend an attorney competent to handle the case, and the client may accept or reject your recommendation. (You are not entitled to a referral fee in such circumstances.) You cannot inform your clients that a designated attorney will represent them during your absence, and that you will resume the representation upon your return.

Q. A lawyer to whom I referred a personal injury case several years ago has just notified me that he has settled it. Under our agreement, I am entitled to one-third of his one-third contingent fee. May I accept it?

A. Yes, assuming that you entered into the agreement while you were licensed, you may accept the fee.

Q. While I am suspended I intend to be in close touch with my partner and office staff concerning the ongoing cases of my former clients. Is that okay?

A. No. You may not run your practice from home. You may not have any involvement whatsoever in representation of any client while you are suspended. You can and should, of course, answer any questions that the client or successor counsel may have as to the status of the case or the work that was done prior to your suspension.

Q. A check arrived after the effective date of my suspension made out to me and a client jointly. May I endorse the check? If not, what should I do with it?

A. Either the check can be returned to the maker, with a request that it be voided and a substitute check be made payable and sent to the client (or the client and successor counsel) or you can endorse the check over to the client and send it to the client or successor counsel. In either instance, you may also send the client or successor counsel an invoice for any fees and expenses you are due. You cannot negotiate the check, even with the client’s endorsement.

Q. I am a co-trustee of a family trust established by my grandparents of which my nieces and nephews are the sole beneficiaries. My entire family knows that I have been suspended. Do I have to resign as co-trustee?

A. Yes, you must resign unless you seek and receive authorization from the Supreme Judicial Court to remain as trustee. There is no exception for fiduciary positions involving family members.



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