“Fake it until you make it” may be good advice for someone who aspires to succeed in business — but not in the law profession.
Practicing law without a license is a criminal offense in California. In fact, even if someone falsely claims to be an attorney – whether or not they actually try to practice law – they have committed a crime under California 6125 BP.
The unauthorized practice of law is prohibited by California Business and Professions Code section 6125 (6125 BP). Anyone who practices law who is not a licensed attorney and member of the California State Bar is guilty of a misdemeanor and is subject to the penalties specified in 6126 BP.
Even if an individual has graduated from law school, if they have not successfully passed the California State Bar exam and obtained their license, practicing any type of law is a violation of the statute. Additionally, an individual who falsely claims to be or advertises themselves as an attorney may face prosecution under 6126 BP, even if they have not actually participated in the practice of law.
Examples of unauthorized practice of law include:
Falsely representing oneself as an attorney.
Providing legal advice in exchange for compensation.
Appearing at a deposition or in court on behalf of another person.
Filing any legal document in which one represents themselves as an attorney.
Drafting legal documents for others.
Criminal penalties for unauthorized practice of law
Violation of 6125 and/or 6126 BP is a misdemeanor that is punishable by any or all of the following penalties:
Up to one year in county jail.
A fine not to exceed $1,000.
A defendant with a prior conviction for practicing law illegally will be subject to a minimum of an additional 90 days in county jail.
A defendant who was previously an active member of the California State Bar and who was subsequently suspended, disbarred, whose membership was deactivated involuntarily, or who resigned from the bar with charges pending can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony offense. If convicted, the jail sentence may range from 18 to 36 months.
Anyone accused of the unauthorized practice of law should get legal advice specific for their situation from a real attorney. However, there are a few common legal defenses to a charge under 6125 and 6126 BP:
Lack of intent and knowledge that the activities constituted the unauthorized practice of law.
Lack of awareness that the defendant’s state bar membership was inactivated or suspended.
The activities in question did not rise to the level of the unlawful practice of law. For example, working as a legal assistant does not require state bar membership, and acting in a manner consistent with the usual and customary duties of a legal assistant does not represent a violation of the statute.
The defendant was coerced, threatened, and/or placed under duress by another to engage in prohibited legal activities.