Black male lawyers more likely to be disbarred or resign with charges pending in California

A State Bar of California study found that between 1990 and 2018, Black male lawyers were almost four times more likely to be disbarred or resign with charges pending.

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The State Bar of California has historically focused its firepower on individuals lacking the resources, support or political connections to mount an effective defense. This finding disproportionately impacts Black men practicing law there.

According to The Los Angeles Times, a report published by the State Bar of California three years ago found that between 1990 and 2018, Black male lawyers were almost four times more likely to be disbarred or resign with pending charges. They were more than three times as likely as their white colleagues to be given probation.

Leah Wilson, the State Bar’s executive director, a Black woman. was the driving force behind the study. It was the first for any state’s attorney system of discipline and the only known analysis of a regulatory organization in California.

A report published by the State Bar of California three years ago found that between 1990 and 2018, Black male lawyers in the state were almost four times more likely to be disbarred or resign with pending charges than their white counterparts. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Wilson resigned from the bar after the publication of the study in 2020. She was rehired in 2021 to help with agency reform following the scandal involving veteran LA attorney Tom Girardi, who stole millions of dollars from consumers for dozens of years and amassed more than 150 complaints before the State Bar took action in public.

Contra Costa County attorney Gregory Harper, who is Black, is battling his third disciplinary hearing since becoming a lawyer 32 years ago. He is fighting for his license after being accused of misconduct in a client dispute involving $21,000.

“For us, we can’t make a mistake,” said Harper, The Times reported. “Why didn’t Girardi get this kind of attention? It would have protected the public. You have zero dollars missing on my end and at least $14 million missing on his end.”

Even if it doesn’t result in disbarment, receiving a State Bar censure can be damaging.

Officials permanently note public reprimands in legal professionals’ records, which are accessible online in the agency directory. Lawyers risk losing current and potential customers and increasing their malpractice insurance costs.

Discipline can also prevent someone from obtaining a license to practice a particular area of law, like family law, and could prevent someone from becoming a judge.

The State Bar is currently considering ways to address racial inequality and its repercussions, including a trial program that would offer free legal assistance to low-income lawyers who could be facing discipline. Another suggestion is to remove some disciplinary records from the public directory after a certain time.

Ben Pavone, a white solo practitioner in San Diego, was accused of breaking a rule requiring lawyers to “keep the respect due” to judges in 2020 after criticizing a decision. 

As a result, he investigated bar statistics and found that 99 percent of cases are against single practitioners and small firms, which make up only 55 percent of the profession.

In a pending appeal of his 30-day suspension, Pavone maintained the actual problem is that the State Bar is “a law firm consisting of 100 Karens.”

“Which might be OK,” he said, The Times reported. “if they were actually tackling Girardis, but as Karens do, they’re complaining about trivia while exempting the Girardis.”

According to the bar’s 2019 racial disparity research, Black attorneys facing discipline are less likely than their white counterparts to have a defense lawyer. Less than 85 percent of Black attorneys investigated had legal representation, compared to 92 percent of White and 90 percent of Latino lawyers.

In 2017, the bar filed charges against attorney Freddie Fletcher for disobeying orders to pay discovery sanctions totaling nearly $5,500. Despite the circumstances of the underlying lawsuit’s settlement, which included paying the fines, the State Bar sought a public reprimand.

Compared to other attorneys, Black men like Fletcher are more likely to be accused of wrongdoing. According to the bar report, the percentages for other demographic groups included 44 percent for Latino men and 32 percent for white men. A reported 46 percent of Black male attorneys have received at least one complaint, and 12 percent received 10 or more complaints, the latter statistic deemed “particularly striking” in the study.

The study had no explanation for why Black male lawyers are targeted more, but legal experts contend a possibility is linked to emotions that run high in cases involving family law and criminal defense — and certain negative ideas about Black men, whether they’re lawyers or not.

“It’s a perception that people have, and it’s born out of experience,” said Fletcher, The Times reported. “They know the police and the authorities have tendencies towards Blacks, so if you do something they don’t like, they will report you because they know [the bar] will be on their side because you are Black.”

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