Licensed attorneys face disciplinary action by the Nevada State Bar for:
- criminal convictions of felonies or DUI,
- being found in contempt of court, and/or
- violations of the Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct
Attorneys accused of misconduct have the right to a trial-like hearing in front of the Bar's Disciplinary Board. If the Board finds against the accused attorney, the Board can impose either:
- a reprimand,
- a fine,
- a license suspension, or
Accused attorneys may have their own legal counsel represent them at disciplinary hearings. The Nevada Supreme Court automatically reviews the case if the Board recommends a reprimand, suspension, or disbarment.
In this article, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys discuss:
- 1. How does the Nevada State Bar Disciplinary Board work?
- 2. Can I apply for an attorney's license with a criminal record?
- 3. What triggers disciplinary action against attorneys?
- 4. What happens if there is a complaint against me?
- 5. What happens at a disciplinary hearing?
- 6. Can I go to jail for lawyering without a license?
- 7. Other occupational licenses in Nevada
The Nevada State Bar has two Disciplinary Boards tasked with conducting disciplinary hearings and imposing penalties. The Northern Nevada Disciplinary Board usually meets in Reno, and the Southern Nevada Disciplinary Board usually meets in Las Vegas.
Each disciplinary board consists of at least 35 licensed Nevada attorneys and at least 12 non-lawyers, all appointed by Nevada's Board of Governors. These board members may serve up to four terms of three years each.1
Yes, though the Bar may deny admission to applicants depending on the nature of their criminal records. The Bar does not specify which crimes -- if any -- automatically bar a person from becoming a lawyer.
The Bar requires applicants to disclose their entire criminal history, including arrests that did not result in a conviction. Predictably, the more serious the offense, the more likely the Bar will deny admission. The Bar may also request additional information to determine whether the applicant has been rehabilitated.2
Two categories of misbehavior can trigger disciplinary actions against an attorney by the Nevada State Bar:
- Any criminal conviction;
- And any alleged violation of Nevada's Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys.
The Nevada State Bar distinguishes between "serious crimes" and non-serious crimes. Serious crimes include:
- any crime less than a felony that adversely reflects on the attorney's fitness to practice law, or
- any crime less than a felony that involves either:
- improper conduct as an attorney,
- interference with the administration of justice,
- false swearing,
- Nevada fraud crimes,
- willful failure to file an income tax return,
- Nevada theft crimes, or
- an attempt or a conspiracy or solicitation of another to commit a “serious crime.”
If an attorney gets convicted of a "serious crime," the Nevada State Bar can summarily suspend an attorney's license upon filing a petition with the Nevada Supreme Court. (The Court can reverse the suspension if the accused attorney shows "good cause.") The Bar will also schedule a disciplinary hearing to determine the extent of discipline to be imposed.
If an attorney gets convicted of a non-serious crime, the Nevada Supreme Court has the discretion to refer the matter to the Disciplinary Board. If the non-serious crime pertains to the accused attorney's fitness to practice law, the Supreme Court can issue an order to show cause: This would require the accused attorney to demonstrate why the Court should not impose an immediate temporary suspension pending the disciplinary hearing.
(Go down to section 5 for more information about disciplinary hearings.)
The Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct has hundreds of rules. Examples of professional misconduct that could trigger disciplinary actions include:
- neglecting to follow fee-splitting procedures with other attorneys,
- violating the Bar's advertising rules,
- charging a contingency fee in a criminal defense case or a family law case,
- violating client confidentiality,
- representing a client even though there is a conflict of interest, and the client did not give informed consent in writing, and
- sending targeted advertisements to personal injury victims in violation of the Nevada Rules of Professional Conduct ("ambulance-chasing")
Note that licensed attorneys convicted of any crime other than minor traffic violations are required to inform the bar within 30 days of the conviction. Failing to inform the bar within the required time frame is itself misconduct and grounds for disciplinary action.3
When the Bar learns of an attorney's alleged misconduct, it will commence disciplinary proceedings. Scroll down to the next section to learn more.
The Nevada State Bar's Office of Bar Counsel reviews all informal complaints ("grievance files") made against attorneys, usually within 10 business days of receipt. Bar Counsel may then contact the attorney requesting him/her to respond in writing to the allegations within another 10 business days.
Depending on the accused attorney's response, Bar Counsel may initiate an investigation. The length of the investigation turns on the circumstances of the allegations. Once the investigation is concluded, Bar Counsel may make either of the following six recommendations:
- issuing a dismissal with prejudice (meaning that the Bar is dropping the matter against the attorney for good),
- issuing a dismissal without prejudice (meaning that the Bar is dropping the matter against the attorney but may reconsider the matter if new evidence is presented),
- referring the attorney to a diversion or mentoring program (such as rehabilitation for drugs or alcohol),
- issuing a letter of caution,
- issuing a letter of reprimand, or
- filing a written complaint for further, formal proceedings
All Bar Counsel decisions are automatically reviewed by one of the Disciplinary Board's "screening panels," comprised of two lawyers and one non-lawyer. By majority they approve, reject, or modify the recommendation.
Attorneys who are issued letters of reprimand have 14 days to reply with an objection. If the attorney objects, then the Board will set the matter for a hearing. If the attorney does not respond in time, then the reprimand is final and may not be appealed.4
4.1. Formal Complaints
Formal complaints by the Bar against an attorney must clearly enumerate all the charges as well as the underlying conduct supporting the conduct. In most cases, the accused attorney is allowed to keep his/her bar license pending the resolution of the matter.
Once the Bar serves the complaint on the attorney, he/she has 20 days to answer it. He/she may have an additional 20 days to answer it for good cause shown or if the Bar stipulates to the extension. The accused attorney may hire private legal counsel to help compose the response.
In the event that the accused attorney never answers the complaint, the Bar will deem that he/she admitted to the charges. However, the accused attorney can later attempt to set aside the judgment if he/she can show the reason was mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect.
Within 30 days of receiving the attorneys' response (or of the deadline for receiving the response), the Bar will assign the manner to a hearing panel. The panel must then hold a disciplinary hearing within 45 days and give the attorney 30 days notice of the date, time, and location. For good cause shown, the hearing panel may postpone the hearing for up to 90 more days.
Scroll down to the next section for information on Nevada State Bar disciplinary hearings.5
Disciplinary hearings by a Nevada State Bar Disciplinary Board resemble trials: The attorney facing disciplinary charges may be represented by another lawyer; both the attorney and the Office of Bar Counsel may present arguments and evidence; and both the attorney and the Office of Bar Counsel may cross-examine witnesses.
The Disciplinary Board's hearing panel can have either three or five members. When the hearing is over, the hearing panel will deliberate. The standard of proof in Nevada State Bar disciplinary hearings is "by clear and convincing evidence." (This a little lower than the standard of proof in criminal trials, which is "beyond a reasonable doubt.")
A majority of the hearing panel members must find against the attorney in order to impose discipline. So if the hearing panel has three members, two must find against the attorney by clear and convincing evidence. And if the panel has five members, three must find against the attorney by clear and convincing evidence.
The hearing panel must render a written decision within 30 days of the hearing. But if the attorney or Bar Counsel requests post-hearing briefs, then the deadline to render a decision is extended to 60 days.6
5.1. Forms of Discipline
If the hearing panel finds against the attorney, it may impose the following forms of discipline:
- suspension of the bar license (a suspension of 6 months or less does not require proof of rehabilitation in order to get reinstated; a suspension of more than 6 months does require proof of rehabilitation to be demonstrated in order to get reinstated);
- temporary restraining orders regarding funds;
- public reprimand or letter of reprimand, with or without conditions, including but not limited to restitution, a fine, or both a reprimand and a fine; or
- letter of caution, which is a dismissal but cautions the attorney regarding specific conduct and/or disciplinary rules.
When determining what level of discipline to impose, the hearing panel may consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Possible aggravating circumstances that may justify harsher discipline include:
- the attorney acted in bad faith, dishonestly, or selfishly,
- the attorney had prior disciplinary offenses,
- the victim was vulnerable,
- the attorney refused to take responsibility,
- the attorney submitted false evidence, and/or
- the attorney had substantial legal experience and should have known better
Meanwhile, possible mitigating circumstances that may justify laxer discipline include:
- the attorney had no prior disciplinary record, or the prior offenses were remote,
- the attorney acted in good faith,
- the attorney had personal or emotional problems,
- the attorney was inexperienced in practicing law,
- the attorney had a good reputation,
- the attorney showed remorse, and/or
- the attorney suffered from addiction
Note that it is not a mitigating circumstance if the victim in the case withdrew his/her grievance, never complained, or recommended a lax sanction, or if the attorney resigned prior to the hearing.
Also note that if the hearing concerns a serious crime that the attorney has already been convicted of, the hearing panel cannot dismiss the matter. Instead, it will only deliberate about the extent of the appropriate disciplinary punishments.7
After the Nevada Bar serves an attorney with the hearing panel's decision, the attorney has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Nevada Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court automatically reviews any decisions recommending a public reprimand, suspension, or disbarment. If the hearing panel recommended disbarment, the attorney may be able to petition for only a temporary suspension of his/her license pending the Supreme Court's decision.
Once the Supreme Court receives the record of the case from the State Bar, the attorney has 30 days to submit an opening brief, and the court may schedule an oral argument. If the attorney does not file a brief, the Court will consider the matter without briefs or an oral argument.8
It is a possibility, though judges typically impose only a fine for a first offense. The penalties increase with each successive offense of the unauthorized practice of law:9
Unauthorized Practice of Law in Nevada
1st offense within 7 years
2nd offense within 7 years
Subsequent offense within 7 years
The judge may suspend the sentence and grant probation, which can still include a jail sentence of up to 1 year.
Also note people accused of practicing law with no license may face civil suits from alleged victims. Depending on the case, potential causes of action include:
- breach of contract,
- unjust enrichment, and/or
- legal malpractice
Learn more in our article on the unlawful practice of law in Nevada.
7.1. Contractors (Builders)
Licensed contractors face disciplinary actions for doing substandard work or engaging in unprofessional conduct or criminal activity. Learn more in our article on disciplinary proceedings and license revocations for Nevada contractors.
7.2 Real Estate Brokers and Salespeople
The Nevada Real Estate Commission can suspend or revoke the licenses of real estate brokers or salespeople who commit certain crimes or types of misconduct. Learn more in our article on disciplinary proceedings and license revocations for Nevada real estate brokers and salespeople.
Nurses and nursing assistants are disciplined by the Nevada Nursing Board for committing crimes or misconduct. Learn more about Nevada nursing license revocations and suspensions.
The Nevada Board of Medical Examiners adopts regulations, holds disciplinary hearings, and imposes penalties for misconduct by doctors, physician assistants, and respiratory care specialists. Learn more about Nevada medical license revocations and suspensions.
The Nevada Dental Board can revoke the licenses of dentists and dental hygienists for crimes of moral turpitude or unprofessional conduct. See more in our article on license revocations or suspensions for Nevada dentists.
CPAs jeopardize their licenses for committing certain crimes or professional misconduct. Learn more in our article about disciplinary proceedings and license suspensions for Nevada accountants.
7.7. Social Workers
Social workers may be disciplined by the State Board of Examiners for Social Workers as punishment for having a serious criminal record or committing misconduct. Go to our article about suspending or revoking social worker's licenses in Nevada disciplinary hearings.
Nevada educators can have their license suspended or revoked for convictions of felonies, crimes involving moral turpitude, or sex offenses with pupils. Go to our article about disciplinary actions against teachers in Nevada.
Call a Nevada criminal defense attorney...
Are you at risk of losing your bar card? Call our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673) to discuss your matter free of charge. As attorneys ourselves, we know how hard you worked to pass the bar exam and earn a living. We will do everything possible to save your license so you can get back to your life as soon as possible.
Facing discipline in California? See our article on California disciplinary actions for attorneys.
- Disciplinary Rules of Procedure (June 28, 2018).
- Nevada Supreme Court Rule 52.
- Nevada Supreme Court Rule 11.
- Nevada Supreme Court Rule 105.
- Nevada Supreme Court Rule 102, 102.5, 111.
- Nevada Supreme Court Rule 105.
- NRS 7.285.