Disbarment means loss of a license to practice law. It essentially removes an attorney from the Bar in the state in which he or she had been admitted to practice law. Disbarment can be temporary or permanent.
When an attorney graduates from law school, he or she is not yet eligible to practice law, to appear in court or to represent clients. The attorney must first pass the state Bar Exam, which is administered individually by each state in the US. Upon passing the exam and proving his moral character, the attorney is sworn into the Bar of the relevant state.
When an attorney is sworn in, he promises to uphold the law. He is also bound by a Code of Professional Conduct referred to as the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. The Model Rules are published by the American Bar Association, and include provisions governing all aspects of attorney's conduct, from confidentiality rules to client relations.
If an attorney fails to act as an officer of the court, he or she can be disbarred for improper actions. Disbarment usually comes after a disciplinary proceeding, in which the attorney's behavior is judged to determine whether it merits disbarment. Disciplinary proceedings can be instituted for any violation of an attorney's obligations to uphold the law and the principals of legal ethics.
Disbarment proceedings are normally conducted in front of a court of law, with a special judge presiding over the hearing. At the hearing, evidence of the attorney's misconduct that is grounds for the disbarment are presented. The judge will weigh the evidence to determine if the attorney's behavior was egregious enough that he or she should be disbarred.
An attorney can be disbarred for violating privilege, or for failing to uphold his duty to a client. For example, if an attorney steals money from a client, or behaves in an otherwise unethical manner, the attorney can also be disbarred. Attorneys can occasionally be disbarred for improper personal behavior as well, such as commission of a felony.
Once an attorney is disbarred, he loses his license to practice law, and he is no longer legally allowed to represent clients, give legal advice, or appear in court. This penalty may be permanent, if the attorney's actions were egregious. An attorney may also lose his license temporarily, if his actions were improper but not serious enough to merit a permanent disbarment.