Unauthorized Practice of Law: Definition & Consequences

Instructor: Ian Lord

Ian has an MBA and is a real estate investor, former health professions educator, and Air Force veteran.

This lesson will explore how the 'unauthorized practice of law' concept limits who can act as an attorney. The consequences for those who engage in unauthorized practice of law will also be examined. A brief quiz follows the lesson.

Unauthorized Practice of Law: Definition

According to Black's Law Dictionary, the unauthorized practice of law is 'The practice of law by a person, typically a non-lawyer, who has not been licensed or admitted to practice law in a given jurisdiction.' The exact interpretation of this varies by state. The general principle holds that someone who is unlicensed may not do the same job a lawyer would for money. This includes writing contracts, giving legal advice, or representing clients in court.

So what can a non-lawyer do? They can fill in the blanks on a standard form or contract. A non-lawyer can prepare tax returns, provided they don't give specific legal advice. It is also acceptable to provide general estate planning guidance. However, the specifics and the legal instruments of estate planning still need to be written by an attorney.

Real Estate Specific Examples

There are many seemingly harmless ways for someone in a real estate deal to commit unauthorized practice of law. It would not be an issue for someone to fill in the blanks on a template contract. However, there could be a legal issue if the person drafting the complete original contract isn't allowed to do so in that state. Scrivening, which is the act of filling in the blanks, is legal for anyone to do. Drafting refers to creating the document. Lawyers have the training and education to properly word these documents so that they are enforceable. If a contract drafted by a non-lawyer ever became evidence in a court case, it might be found to be inadmissible. Enforcing rules against unauthorized practice of law helps prevent situations such as this from occurring.

Where unauthorized practice of law statutes exist, the state will identify the scope of allowable practices. Some duties may be permissible for brokers, closing agents, real estate agents, or the buyer/seller to perform.

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