Thinking about becoming a Paralegal or just curious about a career in law? No matter what your intentions are, you need to know the taboos that surround those who practice law without a license. This is one of the many topics covered in the Community Care College online Paralegal program. Do you want to know more about the practicing law without a license? Follow along as we discuss what it is, who does it, where it happens, and what the consequences are.
What is the unauthorized practice of law?
Under state law, only lawyers may give legal advice. Legal advice includes applying the law to the facts of a client’s specific situation. Other legal tasks that only lawyers may perform include appearing in court and setting legal fees. Paralegals and other staff members may perform legal tasks under the supervision of an attorney. No one but an attorney, however, can give legal advice to a client. Attorneys are also the only ones who can appear in court or accept the legal representation of a client and set fees.
This is the basic definition of the authorized practice of law.
Definition: The unauthorized practice of law occurs when anyone other than an attorney performs an attorney’s duties. This includes giving legal advice, appearing in court as a legal representative, or accepting legal representation of a client.
Who does it?
There are two common scenarios for the unauthorized practice of law:
- The first is when disbarred attorneys continue to practice law. That’s a huge no-no. You should always check and make sure your attorney is a member of the bar. Check at the Oklahoma Bar Association website for a list of current members in good standing.
- The second commonly seen scenario is when paralegals, notaries, or other entrepreneurs perform legal services. Often, this is advertised as “document preparation” services. Even though these individuals have the legal knowledge, they do not have the authority to practice law in these areas.
You may think that you will never have to deal with this but it is more relevant than you think. Legal services often cost more money than most people can afford. However, it is understandable that potential legal clients would want to save money by using a much cheaper substitute to complete legal filings. Which, if we’re being honest, sounds like an easy and cost-effective short cut. The problem is that even choosing which form the client should file is giving legal advice. This work must be done under the supervision of an attorney. Above all, no matter how simple it may seem, you’ll be grateful that your legal advice is actually legal in the long run.
Where do you see the unauthorized practice of law?
As a paralegal educator, I see that students are often tempted to open their own business coming right out of their paralegal program. I’ve seen students launch websites and Facebook pages announcing that they are now “providing legal services to the public.” This is a TERRIBLE mistake for both the student and their potential customers.
First of all, a one or two-year paralegal program is not an educational substitute. It is so important to recognize the importance of the seven years of higher education required of attorneys. This also includes the passage of the Bar exam. Secondly, a person without law-office experience is completely unprepared to handle clients. Thirdly, a paralegal without a supervising attorney is not a paralegal. Paralegals must ALWAYS be supervised by a lawyer.
Why do I see paralegals with their own businesses?
It’s actually possible for a paralegal to open her own business. This is permitted if the paralegal works on a contract basis for attorneys. She must only advertise to attorneys. Then she can be hired to work on short-term projects or regular tasks that don’t require a full-time office assistant. In other words, she cannot advertise to clients. Even a freelance paralegal business, however, will not be successful unless the paralegal has significant law-office experience. Working in a law office is also a great way to establish many contacts in the legal community.
Paralegal students should plan to be employed by a law office, government entity, or business. Above all, your goal should be to work where you can be supervised directly by on-site attorneys. You should stay in this position for at least five years before considering going freelance. As a result, I have found this is the best practice for paralegals wanting to open their own business.
What are the dangers and consequences?
The biggest danger of the unauthorized practice of law is getting or giving bad legal advice to the public. Having an unsupervised “paralegal” perform legal work means that you are taking a huge risk. As a result, you can even be given incomplete, wrong, and/or irrelevant legal advice. If you file the work incorrectly prepared by a “document preparer,” you may give up certain legal rights in your case.
From the unsupervised “paralegal’s” perspective, the problem is that you may be sued for your bad advice. Attorneys are able to obtain malpractice insurance to cover their mistakes. However, No one else can get insurance to cover bad legal advice. An unsupervised paralegal can easily be sued by a customer for the consequences of their work.
If you find yourself interested in a career in law and looking for an online schooling option, the Community Care College Paralegal program is the right choice for you. With a 100% online curriculum, you can learn at your convenience. Our curriculum is written and taught by a Harvard Law graduate. Find out more here!
From the desk of Ruth Swimmer, Community Care College Paralegal Instructor and Distance Education Department Head.