Lawyer Discipline

Using data, law prof finds many disciplined lawyers represent consumers—with no oversight

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A new working paper claims that for attorneys with records of public discipline, many are sole practitioners who opened firms following lawyer regulation decisions.

Titled “Professional Discipline and the Labor Market: Evidence from Lawyers” and written March 7, the working paper was written by Kyle Rozema, an associate professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.

“In particular, I find that many disciplined lawyers move out of law firms with other lawyers—where lawyers are subject to oversight from other lawyers—and into solo practice—where previously disciplined lawyers practice without any oversight,” according to the paper.

Rozema’s data comprised 672,000 lawyers from 36 states and the District of Columbia in 2012 and in 2020. Discipline records came from public sources, and he relied on the attorney directory Martindale Hubbell for employment information.

“I find that 4.4% of lawyers are professionally disciplined and that half of disciplined lawyers who are not disbarred go on to reoffend,” Rozema wrote.

Alleged conduct leading to discipline included representing clients when there was a conflict of interest and submitting false information to the court; penalties ranged from public censure to disbarment.

According to the paper, after they were disciplined, many lawyers moved into practice areas with “unsophisticated clients,” including criminal and family law.

Rozema found that sole practitioners comprised 30% of the legal profession but received 56% of the public discipline.

His paper looked at small, midsize and large law firms too.

“Of the disciplined lawyers who are not disbarred, they tend to cluster in particular law firms that employ multiple lawyers with a disciplinary record, and only a small share of the largest law firms retain zero lawyers with a disciplinary record,” Rozema wrote.

At midsize and large firms, Rozema found that lawyers who received discipline were a third more likely to leave their offices than those who were not. Among the disciplined lawyers, he found that those with less seniority were more likely to leave, as were those at firms that employed no other attorneys with public discipline records.

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