Law practice is one of the true professions. To be entitled to practice law, lawyers undergo a rigorous program of doctoral education and training, background checks, monitoring, ethical review and continuing legal education. Being a good lawyer involves a commitment to a way of life that includes keeping current on a vast body of legal knowledge. The “practice” of law requires that we lawyers remain lifelong students of our craft.
In addition to the laws regulating admission to the Bar, our Legislature has enacted laws designed to protect consumers from being hurt by those without proper education, training and skill. Those laws provide that only lawyers are licensed to help others with legal problems by applying general legal principles to specific sets of facts; all others engaging in the practice of law are practicing law without a license – a crime under California’s Business and Professions Code!
Lately, so-called “legal document preparation” and “paralegal” services have been surfacing advertising an alternative to attorney-rendered legal services. I take no issues with legitimate paralegals who operate under the direct supervision of attorneys within the statutory guidelines designed to protect consumers. My concern lies with the operations selling services directly to consumers such as fill-in-the-blanks cookie-cutter “estate plans” or “help” drafting very important – often dispositive – lawsuit papers.
Some (not all) paralegal services do cross the line and, without proper attorney supervision, end up engaged in the practice of law without a license. That concerns me greatly. I have come across a number of unauthorized practice of law (UPL) horror stories. I’ve seen clients of some of these outfits appear in court and have their poorly drafted papers rejected. I have seen a hapless client of a well-known local paralegal service lose a hearing because the document sold to him was simply ineffective under the circumstances. The problem is bad enough that the State Bar of California cosponsored a seminar I attended which taught lawyers how to fix estate plans botched by the unskilled.
Some of the worst UPL cases involve immigration scam artists. Sometimes called “Notarios Publicos” by the Spanish speaking community, these grifters (not to be confused with California notaries public) promise the world to their victims, all the while knowing they can’t deliver. I can only imagine the thoughts of the victims who, after paying thousands of hard-earned dollars, realize they’ve been swindled; the victim ends up on a plane with a one-way ticket courtesy of ICE and the “immigration consultant” laughs all the way to the bank, confident his victim is powerless to do anything about it. In a Los Angeles Daily Journal article (reprinted below with permission), LA Deputy District Attorney Karen Nobumoto, president of the State Bar of California, said “the level of havoc resulting from UPL today … is felony behavior.”
What this means is that ultimately some of those who thought they would be saving money on “legal services” will need to pay to see a lawyer anyway to fix the non-lawyers’ botched work – if the work can be fixed. So much for saving money…
Law is a serious business best left to professionals. Most lay people don’t have the time or are otherwise not suited to prepare their own legal matters. When legal services are necessary, buy yourself peace of mind by consulting with a true professional – a competent lawyer licensed to practice law in your state.
—————— Los Angeles Daily Journal Article Below ——————
State Bar Head Blasts Fraud by Pseudolawyers
Leader Urges Felony Charges if Poseurs Intentionally Mislead
Bar Leaders Applaud
By Don J. DeBenedictis
Daily Journal Stall Writer
Originally Published September 11, 2001
© Los Angeles Daily Journal
Reprinted with Permission
ANAHEIM — The new president of the State Bar of California Saturday called for nonlawyers who practice law without a license to be charged with felonies when they intentionally dupe clients.
Giving her inaugural address as bar president, Karen S. Nobumoto spoke mostly about changing bar governance, working with other bar leaders and increasing diversity within the legal profession.
But in a few sentences addressed to the governor and the Legislature, she declared that “people who hold themselves out as lawyers, but who have never gone to law school nor passed the bar, ought to be prosecuted.”
Deceiving the Public
Further, she said, “because of their knowing intent to deceive the public, the charge should not be a misdemeanor, as it is today, but a felony.”
Both lines drew applause from the audience of bar leaders and delegates to the State Bar Annual Meeting.
Shortly before taking office. Nobumoto, a Deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, prosecuted a paralegal for unauthorized practice of law and grand theft. A judge convicted the man of 27 counts and sentenced him to 13 years in prison, primarily for the felony theft charges.
In her speech Saturday, Nobumoto said unauthorized practice of law, or UPL, “is a scourge in many of the immigrant communities of California.”
She told the story of an immigrant “who endured many hardships in China, including forced sterilization, who was lured into an unlicensed ‘legal services’ office and guaranteed a green card for $5,900.”
The woman scraped together the fee from her life savings and money from friends.
“Of course, the green card never came. And she was left broke and faced deportation to China,” Nobumoto told the bar.
Immigrant and bar groups have been complaining for years about paralegals, immigration consultants and ‘notario publicos” who promise aliens help but never even try to deliver.
“They take people’s money. and they make promises … and there may be no legal basis to get [the immigrant] a green card,” Frank Chen, the immediate past president of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association, said.
The problem is especially great in the Chinese community, and Chen’s group formed a special committee on the topic several years ago.
Last year, the association worked with Assemblywoman Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, to pass a law that increased penalties from $10,000 to $100,000 for nonlawyer immigration consultants who fail to post notices that they are not lawyers and fail to post a required bond. The law also allows victims of consultants who do not comply with the state regulations to sue for $10,000.
This year, Romero, now in the Senate, wrote a bill that allows prosecutors to seek civil penalties, damages and punitive damages against those who commit the unauthorized practice of law. The bill which the attorney general’s office sponsored, also further toughened state regulation of immigration consultants. The bill, sb1194, is on the governor’s desk.
In an interview after her speech, Nobumoto said she does not want to make negligent unauthorized law practice a felony. Her proposal would not apply to a paralegal who goes a little too far she said.
But Nobumoto said, “the level of havoc resulting from UPL today … is felony behavior.” She said that if the crime were a felony, prosecutors would be more interested in devoting resources and experienced deputies to the cases.
“Whenever a crime rises to be a real serious threat in the community,” prosecutors will go after it, she said.
Unauthorized practice of law has proved to be a difficult crime to control. The State Bar has no authority against those who commit it because, by definition, those individuals are not lawyers. And prosecutors traditionally have been reluctant to push the cases because they can be difficult to prove and take resources away from more serious crimes.
The Los Angeles County district attorney has targeted immigration fraud since at least 1998, and District Attorney Steve Cooley has made the crime a priority, according to Kathleen J. Tuttle, a deputy who handles the cases and also represents the office on a 4-year-old Los Angeles Immigration Fraud Task Force.
She said her office successfully has prosecuted 42 people for immigration-fraud crimes but has not filed unauthorized-practice-of-law charges.
But Steve Baughman, an immigration lawyer at Baughrnan & Wang, said it is very difficult to get district attorneys interested” in prosecuting UPL in San Francisco, where he practices, even when the case is “a slam dunk.”
Baughman said making intentional UPL a felony could be “a great idea.” But, “if DAs don’t put some resources into it, it’s all window dressing,” he said.
One prosecutor in San Francisco who has dealt with such cases, Brian Bringardner, would not comment specifically on Nobumoto’s idea.
“I think what would make it easier for prosecutors is if the state legislature would define the practice of law in the statute, he said. “In my personal opinion, that’s the biggest barrier to criminal prosecutions.”
Chen said another difficulty is that the victims, fearing deportation, often refuse to testify.
Tuttle said any enforcement tool that would make prosecutions quicker and easier would be welcome, but she said she would leave it to others to say whether making unauthorized practice of law a felony is the right approach.
Lobbyists for the California District Attorneys Association could not be reached to comment on the proposal Monday, the beginning of the Legislatures final week in session this year.
An aide to Romero who worked on SB1194 said he could not say what the senator might think of the proposal.
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office declined to comment at this time.
Larry Doyle, the State Bar’s lobbyist, said bar committees and the bar Board of Governors would have to examine and adopt the proposal before he could take it to a legislator to carry as a bill.
Coincidentally, the Board of Governors approved a report in July on the issue of nonlawyers providing legal services. The report recommended the bar try to balance the need to prevent the unauthorized practice of law against the need for many poor and middle-income people to obtain legal help.