Generally disbarment is imposed as a sanction for conduct indicating that an attorney is not fit to practice law, willfully disregarding the interests of a client, or engaging in fraud which impedes the administration of justice. In addition, any lawyer who is convicted of a felony is automatically disbarred in most jurisdictions.
In the United States legal system, disbarment is specific to regions; one can be disbarred from some courts, while still being a member of the bar in another jurisdiction. However, under the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which have been adopted in most states, disbarment in one state or court is grounds for disbarment in a jurisdiction which has adopted the Model Rules.
Disbarment is quite rare. Instead, lawyers are usually sanctioned by their own clients through civil malpractice proceedings, or via fine, censure, suspension, or other punishments from the disciplinary boards. To be disbarred is considered a great embarrassment and shame, even if one no longer wishes to pursue a career in the law; it is akin, in effect, to a dishonorable discharge in a military situation.
Because disbarment rules vary by area, different rules can apply depending on where a lawyer is disbarred. Notably, the majority of US states have no procedure for permanently disbarring a person. Depending on the jurisdiction, a lawyer may reapply to the bar immediately, after five to seven years, or be banned for life.
Former Vice President Spiro Agnew, having pleaded no contest (which subjects a person to the same penalties as a guilty plea) to charges of bribery and tax evasion, was disbarred from Maryland, the state of which he had previously been governor.
In 2001, former President Bill Clinton resigned from the Supreme Court bar rather than face near-certain disbarment, for perjury related to Lewinsky scandal. In a separate, but related action, the Arkansas bar moved to disbar Clinton, but offered a deal that saw him suspended for five years. Because he was allowed to reapply to the bar after the suspension ended in 2006, his punishment is not considered disbarment. Because disbarment is not always permanent, his punishment was functionally identical to disbarment.
Alger Hiss was disbarred for a felony conviction, but later became the first person reinstated to the bar in Massachusetts after disbarment.
In 2007, Mike Nifong, the District Attorney of Durham County, North Carolina who presided over the 2006 Duke University lacrosse case, was disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct related to his handling of the case.
Jack Thompson the Florida lawyer noted for his activism against violent video games (most notably Grand Theft auto) was ordered permanently disbarred for various charges of misconduct,The action was the result of separate grievances filed by people claiming that Thompson made defamatory, false statements and attempted to humiliate, embarrass, harass or intimidate them. The order was made on September 25th 2008, effective October 25th, however Thompson is attempting to appeal to the higher courts in order to avoid the penalty actually taking effect..