Earlier this month a South Carolina attorney was reinstated to the practice of law after being suspended for six months. Exactly three weeks later he was placed on interim suspension. He got to resume being a lawyer for less than a month. How did this happen?
At our most jejune, my colleagues and I (well, mostly I) joke that having a law license is like combining Jedi superpowers with the right to print money. The reason for such joking is that being a lawyer really does invest one with tremendous power. The ability to help people pursue justice through the legal system is the ability to get the government’s police power to do one’s bidding. That is, if one has a court order, one can harness the state’s police power to enforce it. The mere understanding that one can employ police powers to enforce a court order gives attorneys this power even if these police powers rarely need to be invoked. Meanwhile, as practitioners in the only self-regulating, legal professional monopoly, most lawyers make a very comfortable living.
However, to become a lawyer is an investment: not only of three years of rather intensive study and the attendant tuition for law school, but also the lost opportunity of three years at some other employment. Further, there is work in studying for and passing the bar exam and there other steps one must take before obtaining a law license. To become a good lawyer takes additional years of practice, all of which is the precondition of the power and income described above. Thus, losing the ability to practice law is to basically destroy a substantial investment and lose one’s powers and income. It is hard to fathom why so many attorneys take risks with their law license. To lose one’s ability to practice the same month that one has regained it is tragic.
From the more recent court order, it is unclear whether the disciplinary issues that caused the interim suspension pre-dated or post-dated this attorney’s reinstatement. If they pre-dated his reinstatement it was almost cruel to reinstate him only to suspend him again. If they post-dated his reinstatement, his willingness to engage in behavior that led to the new suspension is unfathomable.