Like many other professionals, attorneys must have a license before they can practice law in any state. While license requirements differ slightly from state to state, all states make it illegal to engage in the practice of law without first obtaining a license. Anyone engaged in the practice of law without a license commits a criminal act.
Practice of Law
Each state sets its own standards on it means to practice law. These definitions differ slightly, but they encompass the same types of activity.
Holding oneself out as an attorney. Practicing law includes holding yourself out to the public as an attorney, lawyer, or someone entitled to engage in the practice of law. You cannot, for example, rent a building and use a sign saying that it is a law firm or legal office unless you are a licensed attorney.
Representing others. With very few exceptions, only a lawyer can appear on someone else's behalf in a court or in other judicial proceedings. This includes formal arbitration or mediation hearings, as well as regulatory or administrative proceedings. It is also illegal to negotiate on behalf of someone else if the negotiations involve legal rights or responsibilities.
Preparing documents on another's behalf. Choosing what legal documents a person should create, assisting others in creating those documents, or preparing them on another person's behalf is also considered the unauthorized practice of law. However, some states allow for non-attorney document preparation services, though these are recognized in only a handful of states.
Legal advice. Only attorneys can give others legal advice about what their legal rights are, what they need to do to protect those rights, or provide other forms of legal advice. However, that doesn't mean it's illegal to speak to people about the law or to provide information to others or advice about what you think they should do. The unauthorized practice of law involves providing information about what actions to take or giving advice to someone that is specifically tailored to an individual’s unique situation, under the guise of being an lawyer or person experienced in the law.
You do not have to accept payments or any type of compensation in order to be convicted of the unauthorized practice of law. For example, courts have held that prison inmates who assist other inmates in preparing appeals or other legal pleadings have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law even though they never received payment or compensation for those services.
States do not consider people who represent themselves or pursue their own legal remedies without the assistance of an attorney to be practicing law. For example, if you wish to create your own legal documents, such as contracts, advanced medical directives, or legal pleadings, you do not have to hire an attorney to do this. As long as you are only representing yourself, you can act as your own attorney and create any documents you wish. You can also represent yourself in court or pursue any legal remedy on your own behalf.
Some states allow for non-lawyers to assist others with limited legal matters. According to the American Bar Association, 21 states currently allow legal assistants, paralegals, legal technicians, or others to assist people with legal needs under the supervision of an attorney. Other states allow non-attorneys to help others in preparing legal documents, though document preparers are not allowed to provide legal advice or counsel.
The unauthorized practice of law can be either a misdemeanor or a felony offense. The laws of the state in which the activity occurs determine the severity of the crime, and some states allow for either misdemeanor or felony charges depending on the circumstances. Anyone convicted of the unauthorized practice of law faces a range of potential penalties.
Incarceration. If you're convicted of the crime of the unauthorized practice of law, you face a possible jail or prison sentence. A misdemeanor conviction can lead to a sentence of up to one year in a county jail, while felony sentences allow for a year or more in prison, though 5 years or more in prison is possible in some states.
Fines. Fines are a common punishment for the unauthorized practice of law. Misdemeanor fines are often $1,000 or less, while felony fines can exceed $5,000 or more per offense.
Probation. A probation sentence is also possible if you've been convicted of practicing law without a license. While on probation you must comply with specific conditions, such as paying all fines, reporting to a probation officer, finding or maintaining a job, and not committing any other crimes.
Restitution. If you're convicted of the unauthorized practice of law and you charged the victim a fee for your services, the court will also order a restitution payment. Restitution is a separate penalty apart from any fines the court imposes, and must be paid to the victims to compensate for any losses they suffered. You must also pay restitution as a condition of a probation sentence.
Speak to a Lawyer
Acting as an attorney or assisting others with their legal problems or issues may not seem like it is a criminal offense, but anytime you’re facing an unauthorized practice of law charge, it is a very serious situation. To make matters more difficult, state definitions on what is or isn’t practicing law aren't always clear, and what is an illegal action in one state may not be illegal in another. Because of this, you need to find an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area who is not only familiar with the laws of your state but who also knows the local prosecutors, judges, and who has experience with criminal justice process in your area. A local, experienced criminal lawyer is the only person qualified to give you advice about your criminal case.