Monday, May 6, 2019




          It turns out the weary old joke about how other people can tell when lawyers are lying (when their lips are moving) might be in need of a new punchline: For some lawyers, it’s when they fill out their State Bar Association membership and renewal applications.

          That’s the stunning takeaway from a new California rule requiring lawyers to be fingerprinted not only when they apply for bar membership, but also when they apply for renewal. Just days before the April 30 fingerprinting deadline, 158,000 attorneys had submitted fingerprints, 83 percent of active California lawyers.

          Using those fingerprints, the state Department of Justice and the bar association – licensing and regulatory authority for all California attorneys – turned up 2,699 members who had committed crimes they did not report on their applications, either when first applying or when renewing, or when the crimes were actually committed.

          Of those, 40 were felonies, most before 2005, and 2,659 were misdemeanors. Another 140 FBI records (which include federal offenses from other states and state offenses committed outside California) were still unclear as to whether they involved felonies or misdemeanors. With misdemeanors, attorneys are only required to report those involving “moral turpitude” and ones committed in their practice, or in which clients were victims. The bar doesn’t yet know how many of the unreported crimes fit those categories.

          The upshot: As many as 1.7 percent of all California lawyers apparently tried to hide past crimes. If client recruiting were about equal among all lawyers, that would mean almost two of every 100 Californians seeking legal work on subjects from wills to criminal defense and personal injuries might be hiring a documentable liar.

Said one San Francisco attorney, “This shows what a very good thing it was to put in the new fingerprint rule.”

But so far, the bar association has not suspended or disbarred anyone. Nor has it published names of any member-liars.

          “There’s a process we have to go through, so they’re still practicing law,” said a bar association spokeswoman. “These things have just been transferred to state bar investigators. The entire (fingerprinting) process is new…so we have a backlog.”

          She added that investigators’ emphasis is on serious crimes, especially those committed after the documented liars became lawyers.

          The bar has strong rules about who can join and attorneys can be disbarred for criminal convictions involving moral turpitude or for “other misconduct involving discipline.”

          The lawyer group’s list of crimes demonstrating moral turpitude (defined as “an act of baseness, vileness or depravity…”) includes murder, rape, solicitation to commit assault, perjury, mail fraud, security violations and grand theft.

          Other misconduct warranting discipline includes drunk driving, domestic violence and failure to file federal tax returns.

          Suspension of a lawyer’s license is the “presumed sanction” for felonies not involving moral turpitude, but bar applicants can also be denied for lack of positive moral character. A criminal history is one way to demonstrate this.

          At a spring meeting of the agency’s Regulation and Discipline Committee, a member asked whether lawyers putting off or avoiding fingerprinting are “likely to be the worst offenders.” Bar staff essentially said “maybe.”

          Today’s reality, then, is that while the bar investigates its corps of liars, potential clients cannot know when they’re dealing with one.

          They will only learn lawyers are certified liars or worse after those attorneys are suspended and all appeals exhausted. At that point, suspended or disbarred lawyers must notify all clients in writing.

          One question here is why the preponderance of lawyers who are honest has not yet raised objections to the delay in sanctioning those whose fingerprints reveal them as past criminals, especially felons. When so many active lawyers are known to be miscreants, all lawyers can be suspect, since clients and potential clients can’t tell who’s who.

          One reason may be that lawyers make their livings on the constitutional principle of due process, so many may be reluctant to limit that right for their colleagues.

          Which leaves potential clients at risk of hiring dishonest lawyers for an as-yet undefined period. So far, neither the state bar nor any of its members has offered solutions for this obvious problem. 

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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