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Ethics: Unauthorized Practice of Law

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Introduction & Summary of Article. I have read horror stories online from others who encountered someone practicing law without a law license - has this ever happened to you? And while this article may seem like a "no brainer" there are likely many instances of this inappropriate conduct happening right now...

The point of this article is give readers an understanding of: (1) what is the unauthorized practice of law; (2) how can you vet attorneys moving forward; and (3) if you encounter someone practicing without an active law license, what you should do.

ABA Rule 5.5 of the Rules of Professional Conduct: Unauthorized Practice of Law. "A lawyer shall not practice law in a jurisdiction in violation of the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction, or assist another in doing so. A lawyer who is not admitted to practice in this jurisdiction shall not: (1) except as authorized by these Rules or other law, establish an office or other systematic and continuous presence in this jurisdiction for the practice of law; or (2) hold out to the public or otherwise represent that the lawyer is admitted to practice in this jurisdiction."

In New York, there is Judiciary Law Section 478 which handles the unauthorized practice of law and its penalties.

NYCL, Judiciary Law - S. 478. Practicing or appearing as attorney-at-law without being admitted and registered. "It shall be unlawful for any natural person to practice or appear as an attorney-at-law or as an attorney and counselor-at-law for a person other than himself or herself in a court of record in this state, or to furnish attorneys or counsel or an attorney and counsel to render legal services, or to hold himself or herself out to the public as being entitled to practice law as aforesaid, or in any other manner, or to assume to be an attorney or counselor-at-law, or to assume, use, or advertise the title of lawyer, or attorney and counselor-at-law, or attorney-at-law or counselor-at-law, or attorney, or counselor, or attorney and counselor, or equivalent terms in any language, in such manner as to convey the impression that he or she is a legal practitioner of law or in any manner to advertise that he or she either alone or together with any other persons or person has, owns, conducts or maintains a law office or law and collection office, or office of any kind for the practice of law, without having first been duly and regularly licensed and admitted to practice law in the courts of record of this state, and without having taken the constitutional oath."

Penalties and Punishment. The unauthorized practice of law is a Class E Felony in the State of New York and can carry penalties for persons found guilty of up to four years in prison while also requiring the person to pay fines and restitution or other conditions subject to the courts ruling.

Point is, if you do not have a license, do not attempt to practice law or hold yourself out there as an attorney.

How to Become a Licensed Attorney in New York. To become a licensed attorney in New York, some of the prerequisites include, but are not limited to: the candidate needing to successfully complete formal legal education at an ABA-accredited institution (taking anywhere from two to four years depending on whether they are in an accelerated course or taking classes part-time), sit for exams that test ethical standards & conduct, study to pass a 12-hour Uniform Bar Exam, sit for State Examinations that will test substantive State law, go through Character and Fitness tests, receive letters of recommendations and complete the appropriate application forms, and submit fees for the application and licensing.

Once you become a licensed attorney in New York, you will need to continue your legal education through training and Continuing Legal Education Requirements (CLEs). Point is, a licensed attorney, by the time the client is formally represented, has several years of experience and education to hold their weight in their respective practice areas.

So it saddens me to hear about people who are out there attempting to practice without a license. First, because as attorneys, we really care about our clients and their well-being - fighting to make sure they receive the best possible outcome in their case. Second, it is a sign of disrespect to all practitioners alike who have gone through the training and programs and worked their tails off to become an attorney. Lastly, because it can have long-term impacts on client cases and attorneys.

How to Vet Attorneys Moving Forward. The next time you are looking for an attorney to handle your case, there are some quick and easy things you can do. First, if you are looking through search engines, marketing and advertising platforms, they will likely do the work for you...meaning most platforms will vet attorneys and the status of their license prior to advertising their services. However, if you get referred to an attorney or find them in a google search (that is maybe less vetted), you can always access the New York State Unified Court System and perform an 'Attorney' search.

The search will look something like this:

Type in the attorneys name and click search. Some of the items you will find on the attorney include, but are not limited to: (1) the status of their license, (2) whether they have any disciplinary history, (3) the year they were admitted, and (4) their education.

Additionally, you can always ask the attorney for their 'Registration' or 'License' number while doing your due diligence.

However, if you encounter someone practicing without a law license: Please contact your District Attorney's office in the county you are located or file a claim with the New York State Bar Association. These offices and tools are in place to protect you and attorneys from the unauthorized practice of law.


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