Unauthorized Practice of Law - Business & Professions Code 6125 & 6126 BPC
It is a crime in California to engage in unauthorized law practice. This means that if you are not licensed as an attorney by the California State Bar, you cannot practice law in the state, nor can you provide legal advice or representation to anyone who resides in the state.
The unauthorized practice of law is a misdemeanor crime defined under Business & Professions Code 6125 and 6126. Put simply, if you practice law without the proper credentials, you can be charged with a crime.
The crime of unauthorized law practice is not well known or considered a common crime, but it occasionally occurs. Some people don't realize that practicing law or representing yourself without an active bar license or approval from a judge could lead to criminal charges.
California Business and Professions Code 6126(a) says, “anyone advertising or holding themselves out as entitled to practice law who is not an active member of the State Bar, or authorized by the court at the time is guilty of a crime.”
If convicted of this crime, you could be fined up to $1000 and spend up to 1 year in jail per count. If you were disbarred and continue to practice law, the penalty could be up to 3 years in prison.
in this article, our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will review this topic in more detail below in this article.
What Constitutes the Unauthorized Practice of Law?
As noted, the laws pertaining to the unauthorized practice of law in California are codified in the CA Business & Professions Code 6125 and 6126. BPC 6125 puts it very simply:
- "No person shall practice law in California unless the person is an active licensee of the State Bar."
BPC 6126 further indicates that not only is it illegal to practice law in the state without a California license, but it is also illegal to hold yourself out as a licensed attorney without holding a license—even if you don't engage in the practice of law.
The elements of the crime for unauthorized practice of law include advertising or holding yourself out as practicing law, or practicing law, while you are not an active member of the California State Bar.
So, what does the term “practicing law” mean? While there is no set definition, it generally includes performing legal services in the courtroom, giving legal advice, and preparing legal documentation.
The term “holding yourself out” as authorized to practice law means you could still be found guilty of this crime even if you have not performed any legal work. In other words, just advertising yourself to practice law is sufficient for a conviction under this statute. A related crime for BPC 6126 unauthorized practice of law is California Business & Professions Code 2052 BPC unauthorized practice of medicine.
What Are Some Common Examples?
- A man advertises basic legal services like wills and contract reviews online but doesn't hold a license. Even if he gets no clients, he has still broken the law by advertising services he isn't qualified to perform;
- To meet a deadline, a paralegal unlawfully files a legal claim on behalf of her boss, a licensed attorney, who is out of town;
- A duly licensed attorney in another state provides legal services for California residents. It's against the law because the attorney isn't licensed in California;
- An attorney gets disbarred but continues to finish legal work already in process for her clients;
- A law student who has not yet passed the bar drafts legal documents for his friends for a small fee—or otherwise gives legal advice he is not authorized to provide.
What Are the Punishments for Unauthorized Law Practice?
The basic crime of practicing law without a California license, or falsely presenting oneself as a licensed attorney, is usually a misdemeanor offense in California.
If convicted of a misdemeanor under Business and Professions Code 6126, you could face fines up to $1000 and up to one year in county jail. These penalties can often be reduced to summary probation. However, for subsequent violations of this law, you may have to spend a mandatory minimum of 90 days in jail.
That said, if you practice law after you have been suspended from the bar, disbarred, placed on involuntary "inactive" status, or resigned from the bar pending criminal charges, the penalties for unauthorized practice may go up sharply.
Under these circumstances, the crime is a "wobbler" that may be prosecuted either as a misdemeanor or a felony. If convicted on a felony count, you could face 16 months, two, or three years in state prison, up to $10,000 in fines, and formal felony probation.
What Are the Best Defenses for BPC 6125?
While advertising legal services or practicing law without a license may seem like a straightforward offense, you may still be able to make a successful defense against the charges to avoid or minimize penalties. Common defenses to this crime are listed below.
Lack of intent. You did not willfully break the law by practicing without a license. For example, if you were unaware that your license had been placed on inactive status, you shouldn't be convicted of this crime.
Likewise, if you were unaware that what you were doing was limited to the scope of legal practice (e.g., offering legal advice to someone), or perhaps if you began advertising prematurely before you received the results of your bar exam, you may be able to argue your case on a lack of intent.
Your actions were not within the scope of "practicing law." For example, you might argue that the advice you gave someone was not to be construed as official "legal advice" or that the clerical work you were doing didn't require a legal license.
In these cases, prosecutors are required to prove that you knew you were practicing law or holding yourself out as able to practice law without authorization. Proving knowledge can be challenging, and prosecutors are aware of it. This means it might be possible to get the charges dismissed.
You acted under duress. If you can present evidence that someone was coercing you into performing legal services for them, you may be able to get the charges dismissed.
It might be possible to negotiate with the prosecuting agency for reduced charges or dismissal. Still, the details and circumstances of the case are crucial to developing a defense strategy to obtain the best possible outcome.
Additionally, through prefiling negotiations, we might be able to persuade the prosecution from filing formal criminal charges in the first place before the initial court appearance, known as a “DA reject.” Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles County, and you can reach us for an initial case review by calling (310) 328-3776 or filling out our contact form.