The official term for practicing law without a license is the “unauthorized practice of law” or UPL. In every state, a lawyer seeking to represent a client must be licensed in that state. Practicing law without a license may be a criminal offense.
Who Can Practice Law?
Most states issue law licenses to anyone who passes certain tests (the bar exam) and submits evidence (recommendations, for example) of good moral character.
A lawyer who is licensed in one state cannot automatically practice law in other states. A lawyer does not always have to take the bar exam in a new state, however; some states have streamlined application procedures for lawyers who are already licensed somewhere else.
Law students may be able to perform certain tasks that fall under “practicing law” if they are supervised by a licensed attorney. Many law schools, for example, offer clinical programs that let their students get a taste of practicing law under the supervision of a practicing attorney.
Some bar associations allow “conditional admission” to the bar for applicants with drug, alcohol, or psychological problems. For example, Florida admits applicants who must agree not to use alcohol or controlled substances, participate in a bar-sponsored program to help them overcome their problems, and submit to random screenings for alcohol and controlled substances.
Consumer Harm From the Unauthorized Practice of Law
Nonlawyers who fraudulently claim to be licensed attorneys are the most common targets of prosecution for UPL. Consumers are most likely to be harmed by the unauthorized practice of law when:
- Someone without a law license claims to have one—commonly, by using terms like “attorney at law,” “attorney,” or “Esq.” or otherwise giving the impression that the person has legal credentials
- Con artists target immigrant communities, insisting on big payments up front and then failing to deliver promised results
- Attorneys who have been disbarred because of stealing from clients or other misdeed keep practicing law
Someone convicted of violating a UPL law could face jail time, fines, or community service. Most UPL offenses are prosecuted as misdemeanors, but in some states, nonlawyers can be charged with felonies.
Competition From Nonlawyers
Bar associations sometimes seek to prosecute nonlawyers who don’t claim to be lawyers but offer services to help consumers prepare legal paperwork. Some bar associations have sought to shut down such legal document preparation services, claiming that the nonlawyers are giving legal advice instead of simply preparing forms following the customers’ directions. Some bar associations have even attempted, unsuccessfully, to prohibit the sale of do-it-yourself legal books and software, or forbid websites from offering information and do-it-yourself form preparation.
Absent fraud, it’s difficult to prosecute someone for UPL because it’s often difficult to define exactly what “the practice of law” is. State statutes attempt to define it, but the result is often vague. Courts have sometimes refused to enforce these laws, on the ground that they don’t give nonlawyers enough warning that what they are doing might be illegal.