distressed lawyerOne of our readers recently posed this question. While we hope that the majority of clients may never experience the fact of the disbarment or suspension of their attorney, our reader’s question brings up the greater issue of what is the client to do when his or her attorney is ordered suspended by the California Supreme Court and therefore unable to practice law. This dilemma is most critical if the client is involved in active litigation.

In almost every Supreme Court order disbarring, suspending, or accepting the resignation with charges pending of a State Bar member, the Court orders that the disciplined attorney comply with Rule 9.20 (formerly Rule 955) of the California Rules of Court.

Rule 9.20 requires the disciplined attorney to do four things:

  1. Notify all clients and co-counsel of the member’s inability to practice law after the effective date of the Court’s order (usually 30 days) and to advise the clients to seek other counsel and to call to the client’s attention any urgency that requires the immediate hiring of new counsel;
  2. Return the file and any property to which the client is entitled;
  3. Refund any part of fees paid that have not been earned; and,
  4. Notify opposing counsel and the court in which litigation is pending of the fact of the member’s disqualification from the practice of law.

I have found no California case law on the point of whether a client must pay fees to a suspended lawyer. But under Rule 9.20(4), a disbarred or suspended attorney could argue that he or she is entitled to earned fees up to the date of disbarment or suspension.

As a practical matter, not every disciplined attorney complies with Rule 9.20, and that fact is grounds for further discipline. So, how is the client to know if his or her attorney is still in good standing with the State Bar?

The State Bar issues regular press releases naming disciplined attorneys. The local press only seems to pick it up if the disciplined attorney is newsworthy. However, a client can always go to the State Bar’s web site www.calbar.org to check their attorney’s current status with the State Bar.

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About Kenneth C. Kocourek

Kenneth C. Kocourek is an attorney with the Riverside law firm of Reid & Hellyer and practices business law, civil litigation, real estate law and professional licensing defense. As a Riverside business lawyer, he is a member of the Riverside County Bar Association and is involved with the Riverside Mission Inn Foundation.

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