In New York, lawyers who have been convicted of criminal offenses face both criminal sanctions and also will likely receive professional discipline. The kinds of crimes that attorneys commit are divided into three categories for purposes of professional discipline: first, there are the felony crimes, which will usually result in automatic disbarment if convicted. Then there are serious crimes, where immediate, interim suspension will occur, pending the outcome of a full disciplinary hearing. Finally, there are all other crimes, where if convicted, might give rise to a disciplinary hearing or proceeding. Many attorneys will be able to assist their colleagues who have been accused of crimes, both in the criminal court and later on in the disciplinary administrative court. It is best to get an attorney familiar with both systems, as one has an inevitable impact on the other.
Felony disbarment occurs if an attorney is convicted of a felony under New York law, or even another crime in another jurisdiction that would constitute a felony in New York (even if not a felony in that jurisdiction). There is a specific procedure that must be followed in the event of conviction. The attorney must file a record of conviction with the appropriate Appellate Division, after which the court will remove the attorney’s name from the bar roster of counselors and attorneys-at-law. Felony convictions from other jurisdictions (both state and federal) will be examined by the New York Courts, looking to see whether the crime was “essentially similar” to a New York felony. If so, then this will result in automatic disbarment by the attorney.
Serious crimes are felonies from other states that are not essentially similar to a felony in New York, as well as crimes that have to do with interference of the administration of justice, fraud, deceit, bribery, extortion, or even willful failure to file income taxes. With attorneys, there is an element of lack of moral turpitude that would appear to create the elements necessary for a serious crime. An attorney assisting the subject attorney can fight to show good cause as to why immediate suspension of the license should not be imposed. Further, he or she can help appeal the case and disciplinary proceeding after its initial conclusion. There are a wide variety of sanctions associated with ‘serious crimes’ including disbarment, suspension, and fines.
Other crimes can be enough to begin a disciplinary proceeding, although it will not usually lead to disbarment or suspension, but perhaps a public admonition or demand of fines or restitution. Either way, if you are accused of any criminal behavior as an attorney, it is prudent to seek out legal counsel as soon as possible. The attorney should have experience with both the criminal justice system, as well as the administrative system. They should be familiar with reporting convictions to the relevant disciplinary board, and not be afraid to appeal both the conviction (if any) as well as any disciplinary result. It is usually not advisable to represent yourself, even if you are the best criminal defense attorney you know. That is because it is too easy to become too emotionally vested in the case, and you can miss important details because you are in a sense blinded to some of the harsher realities of your case. Either way, speaking with a licensed professional with experience defending other professionals is the most intelligent first step you can take in the event you become involved in a criminal investigation or proceeding. It is your livelihood at stake.