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Could State Bar Expungement Be Right Around the Corner

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Currently, there is no pathway for expungement of an attorney’s public disciplinary record in North Carolina. This means that attorneys, who received public discipline early in their careers, but have since practiced without incident and do not pose a threat to the public, are forever suffering the consequences.  Reputations are tarnished, and because the internet is forever and very publicly visible, attorneys suffer reputational harm throughout their career and beyond.

Back when I started working at the State Bar in the 1990’s and before, if an attorney received public discipline, the record was not posted on the internet because the State Bar did not have an internet platform.  Members of the public could call the State Bar and ask about the attorney’s disciplinary record, and the State Bar staff could share the attorney’s public discipline with the caller.  Back then, public discipline would appear in attorney publications like Lawyers Weekly, a local paper could pick it up, or it would be published to courts where the attorney practiced.  The embarrassment and fallout from the discipline, however, was relatively brief.  People would eventually forget.  Time would pass. The lawyer learned from mistakes and vowed never to repeat them.

Now, there is a growing consensus across the country that not all discipline should result in a permanent stain on a lawyer’s record or perpetual damage to the lawyer’s reputation.  When a member of the public looks up an attorney online, public discipline from long ago may be on the first page of a search.  If discipline goes viral, either through online news outlets, or disreputable independent watchdog websites (which often get the facts wrong), it is difficult for a lawyer to ever overcome that kind of negative publicity.  Expungement would not necessarily fix those kinds of issues, but what it could do is clear an older public discipline from a lawyer’s record with the State Bar.  Then, if a member of the public were to look at the State Bar’s website, the prior public discipline would no longer be found.  Even if the State Bar were to adopt an expungement process for certain public discipline after a period of time, an attorney would still have to check online and contact third-party websites like AVVO, which posts attorney discipline, to request removal of the discipline after expungement.

Is NC close to adopting an expungement proceeding for lawyers?  It’s hard to say how close, but the Legislative State Bar Review Committee, designated by the General Assembly to review/assess the State Bar’s disciplinary processes and procedures for fairness, seems to believe this is an important issue and will likely recommend that an expungement process of some sort be implemented by the State Bar.   This kind of reform would be a welcome, and long overdue, change to the disciplinary rules.

ABOUT Deanna S. Brocker Deanna represents attorneys before the State Bar on grievance and disciplinary matters and also counsels attorneys and law firms on various ethics matters. She previously served as Assistant Ethics Counsel to the NC State Bar for over 10 years. To read Deanna's full bio, click here