Legalese — Practicing Law Without a License

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Last week, I wrote about the law’s aspirational list of duties, obligations, and even personality traits a lawyer should have (and avoid.)  This week, I want to get more practical.

According to O.C.G.A. 15-19-50, the practice of law itself is defined as:

  1. Representing people in court and preparing pleadings and other documents for court.
  2. “Conveyancing,” which means, in Simple English, the transfer of property from one person to another – this is why you have to have a closing attorney when you are buying a house.
  3. Preparing any documents in which a legal right is secured.
  4. Giving opinions about whether or not a title to real property is valid. (In other words, saying whether or not someone really does own that beachfront property they are trying to sell you.)
  5. Giving legal advice.
  6. “Any action taken for others in any matter connected with the law.”

That last one is pretty broad.  To give more guidance, the next code section, O.C.G.A. 15-19-51 gives the flip side – what you can’t do unless you are a lawyer:

  1. To claim to be a lawyer or represent someone in court. (This becomes a problem often in traffic court when parents want to help their 18 or 19 year old children represent themselves.)
  2. To go into business as an attorney; or
  3. Hold yourself out as being able to practice law.
  4. Give legal advice.
  5. To “furnish attorneys or counsel” – this seems to mean that you can’t even be a referral service without being a lawyer yourself.
  6. To render legal services in any kind of action or proceeding. (Meaning, not just in court, but other places, too.)
  7. To advertise that you are a lawyer, or in any way convey that you are licensed to practice law.
  8. To advertise that you run a law office.

Of course, the major exception to all of this is if you represent yourself.  You can give yourself (bad) legal advice or represent yourself in court – you just can’t do it for someone else.  Bear in mind, however, that under the doctrine of “corporate personhood,” if you have a business, and the business gets sued, you can’t represent the business because technically that would be representing someone else.

Another major exception is with paralegals and legal assistants.  O.C.G.A. 15-19-54 says that so long as there is an attorney “receiving the information or services” who “maintain[s] full professional responsibility to his clients for the information and services received” a paralegal or legal assistant can help lawyers do their work.  So, a paralegal may do the actual typing up of your divorce paperwork, but a lawyer has to look it over and sign off on it before it can be used officially.

There is a rational argument to be made that someone who has been a paralegal for thirty years may know quite a bit more about the law and be better able to give useful advice than a lawyer who has only practiced for a few weeks.  Nonetheless, the law is what it is, and only lawyers can practice law, no matter what their actual knowledge base.

If you suspect that whoever you hired is not actually an attorney, it’s easy enough to find out.  Bar association membership is public record – in Georgia, just go to http://www.gabar.org and look at the member directory.  Most lawyers also proudly display their diplomas and admission certificates in fancy frames in their offices, as well.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  it is being offered for informational purposes only.  No lawyer can advise you about your situation without hearing the particular details of your case.

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