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State Bar explores the racial disparity in attorney discipline

On Behalf of | Jan 29, 2020 | Administrative Law |

As an attorney, you work every day to ensure your clients receive the access to justice that they’re due. But are you also receiving the justice that you’re due?

The State Bar of California recently announced its priorities for 2020, and two items ranked near the top. One was addressing the justice gap. This was the problem the State Bar identified as the discrepancy between the number of Californians who had legal needs in 2018 and the number who pursued legal representation. The other issue was addressing the racial disparity in attorney discipline.

The factors that contribute to attorney discipline

The State Bar commissioned a study that explored the rates at which black, Hispanic, white and Asian male and female lawyers were disbarred or put on probation. It found little meaningful difference between whites and Asians. Men were slightly more likely to be disciplined than women. But the most alarming data related to the discipline of black and Hispanic male attorneys. They were far more likely to be disciplined than their white or Asian peers.

In fact, the study found the greatest discrepancies between the discipline of black and white men:

  • Black male attorneys were nearly 3.5 times more likely to be put on probation than whites
  • Black male attorneys were nearly 4 times more likely to be disbarred than whites

Of course, this led to the question: Why should these rates be so different? Was the State Bar failing its members by treating members of one race differently than those of another? To answer these questions, the report explored the data while controlling for several factors, including:

  • The number of complaints filed
  • The number of investigations launched against the attorneys
  • Histories of former discipline
  • Whether the attorneys had sought representation
  • The size of the practice

The authors found that black attorneys were far more likely than their white counterparts to be subject to multiple complaints. These were often filed by clients. This explained much of the difference, but not all of it. Black male attorneys were still 1.5 to 2 times more likely to face discipline, even after controlling for the number of complaints.

However, the study found that once it controlled for the number of complaints, prior discipline and representation before the Bar, the discrepancies went away.

The importance of good representation

The State Bar study shows how important it can be for attorneys to get experienced counsel when they’re facing potential discipline. As an attorney, you might reasonably feel you can represent yourself, but the State Bar follows its own administrative procedures. You wouldn’t want a family law attorney to handle your business merger. Experienced representation matters.


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