A person practicing law without a license is said to be engaging in the Unauthorized Practice of Law. There are two things that only individuals with law licenses are permitted to do: give legal advice and represent clients in court. If someone who is not a lawyer licensed and timely certified by his or her resident states bar gives legal advice or represents someone in court, they are subject to harsh consequences.
Giving legal advice is defined as prescribing or suggesting certain courses of action based on presumed legal knowledge. All legal inquiries as well as criminal charges arise in specific circumstances, and lawyers are trained in a very specialized way to know how to conduct legal research on the specific nature of the question or charge. Someone with a more general knowledge of the law will not be able to give sound legal advice, which could lead to grave consequences for the person receiving the advice.
Preparing legal documents can be unauthorized practice of law, and practicing in court without a license is also strictly prohibited.
More nebulous, but also prohibited, is presenting yourself as a lawyer if you are not one. Paralegals, real estate agents, bank employees, financial advisors, notary publics, collection agency representatives, and law graduates who have not yet passed the bar must be sure to make it clear to any clients that they are not lawyers and cannot give legal advice.
What Are the Consequences for Practicing Without a Law License?
Punishments for practicing law without a license are left to each state to legislate and enforce. These can range from small fines to serious penalties, such as incarceration. Misdemeanor charges can result in fines in the hundreds of dollars, while felony conviction fines are thousands of dollars. Restitution payments can be ordered if the unauthorized practice of law resulted in the loss of funds for someone else. Repeat charges and even first offenses, if grave, can lead to probation and criminal incarceration in some states.
What Are Common Defenses for Unauthorized Practice of Law?
Pro se representation, or the representation of one’s self in legal actions and legal matters, is not considered unauthorized practice of law. Non-lawyers are permitted to research, argue in court on their own behalf, and prepare their own legal documents. However, non-lawyers cannot practice law on behalf of friends or family members. Pro se representation is only permitted if the non-lawyer’s “client” is him or herself.
If there is proof that you did not intend or otherwise did not present yourself as a lawyer, or did not prepare legal documents as a non-lawyer, these may be successful defenses. Another potential defense measure is if you have proof that you specifically told the client that you were not a lawyer and that you were not giving legal advice, and followed that up with specific instructions to consult a lawyer.
Do I Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer?
Yes. Being convicted of unauthorized practice of law can have serious consequences. You will want a criminal defense lawyer who can give you the best possible to defense to any unlicensed practice of law charges you are facing.