Illegal Practice


In the world of "Peanuts," Lucy Van Pelt can get away with setting up a stand advertising "Legal Advice 50¢." If she tried that in the real world, she just might get carted off to jail for unauthorized practice of law.

That may change in California, however. A new bill authored by state Sen. Robert Presley (D–Riverside), the first of its kind in the nation, would allow nonlawyers to offer a wide range of legal services directly to the public. The measure, proposed by the consumer group HALT, would enable independent "legal technicians" to compete with attorneys without fear of prosecution.

"We consider it an issue of consumer choice," says Debbie Chalfie, HALT's legislative director. She cites a recent study by Nolo Press of Berkeley comparing paralegal fees to those of low-cost attorneys in California. On average, the lawyers charged $625 more for uncontested divorces, $120 more for wills, $375 more for bankruptcies, and $500 more for incorporations.

Although California has allowed paralegals fairly wide latitude in recent years, nonlawyers feel constrained by a vague statute forbidding unauthorized practice of law. Nonlawyers offering legal services have been fined and jailed under similar rules in other states.

HALT favors abolishing unauthorized-practice rules, allowing clients the counsel of their choice. Presley's bill would not go quite that far, but it would allow legal technicians to perform all functions of lawyers except representing clients in court. Legal technicians would register with the state, but they would not have to meet any training requirements. A state-appointed Board of Legal Technicians, however, would require certification tests for some legal specialties.

Chalfie notes that legal technicians can serve low-income clients who otherwise could not afford legal help. The consumer benefits promised by Presley's bill have attracted the support of the NAACP, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and the Consumer Federation of California, among other groups. Even the California State Bar's Public Protection Committee has endorsed expanding the role of legal technicians.

Although bar associations in other states have been eager to see nonlawyers prosecuted for competing with attorneys, Chalfie says the California bar has been more tolerant. Some possible reasons: concerns about violating antitrust law; negative publicity generated by unauthorized-practice cases in other states; and the recognition that many Americans cannot afford legal services.

"The legal profession can offer no other solution to this problem," Chalfie says. "They realized that they end up looking like the bad guys."