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.
Each state sets its own standards on it means to practice law. These definitions differ slightly, but they encompass the same types of activity.
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.
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.