The practice of law comes in many forms and sizes. It may include giving advice about a legal right, representing a client in a legal proceeding, preparing legal documents, and negotiating on a client’s behalf. Yet what all these acts have in common is that you must have state authorization to so act. You face serious repercussions for unauthorized practice of law, whether the unauthorized practice is just for a single, quick transaction or a representation spanning more than a decade. The recent case Ohio State Bar Assn. v. Doheny in the Supreme Court of Ohio highlights two important points about the unauthorized practice of law.
No ticket in the Buckeye State
In Doheny, the practitioner was or had been licensed in Indiana, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, but never in Ohio. The Ohio State Bar Association charged him with 11 instances of unauthorized practice: he provided legal advice to more than six Ohio residents, negotiated on behalf of several Ohioans in legal matters, drafted purchase agreements and quitclaim deeds for real property located in Ohio, and collected approximately $70,000 in fees for those services.
Meanwhile, the practitioner held himself out as an attorney in Ohio by using false and misleading letterheads and titles to create the impression that he was authorized to practice law in the Buckeye State.
After initially cooperating in the investigation, the practitioner neither answered the complaint nor appeared in the proceedings. The Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law recommended an injunction against further illegal acts and imposition of a $25,000 civil penalty.
In adopting the Board’s recommendation, the court provided two key takeaways about the unauthorized practice of law.
Practicing without a license
One key takeaway is that if you practice in a jurisdiction where you are not licensed you will be treated in that state as if you are not a lawyer at all. The court emphasized that “when an individual who is not licensed to practice law in Ohio negotiates legal claims on behalf of Ohio residents or advises Ohio residents of their legal rights or the terms and conditions of settlement, he or she is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.” Because the practitioner in Doheny provided such services without an Ohio license, the court ruled that he engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
Preventing individuals from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law was imperative to the court for two reasons: first, said the court, it is “necessary to protect the public from agents ‘who have not been qualified to practice law and who are not amendable to the general discipline of the court.’” Second, the public needs to be protected from the “incompetence, divided loyalties, and other attendant evils that are often associated with unskilled representation.” The court aimed to further these two policy objectives with its decision.
Holding yourself out as a lawyer
Another key takeaway from the court’s decision is that falsely holding yourself out as being authorized to practice law in a jurisdiction is equivalent to actually engaging in unauthorized practice. In line with state statute, the court defined the unauthorized practice of law in Ohio to include “the ‘[h]olding out to the public or otherwise representing oneself as authorized to practice law in Ohio’ by any person who is not admitted or otherwise certified to practice law in Ohio.”
In Doheny, the practitioner held himself out as an attorney in Ohio by using the honorific “Esq.” in his Ohio communications. He also used false and misleading letterhead by placing his name above the word “Principal” and including a Hamilton, Ohio office address which he neither owned nor had permission to use. After adopting these findings of fact, the court ruled that the practitioner engaged in unauthorized practice of law.
Don’t let this happen to you
Even in our current increasingly-globalized legal market, states take unauthorized practice seriously and will give it significant attention. Like the practitioner in Doheny, individuals in Ohio found to have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law can be enjoined from practicing law and fined up to $10,000 per offense. Before providing legal services in any jurisdiction, you should always make sure that you are authorized to do so.