Sometimes individuals and businesses represent that they can provide legal services or help to prepare legal documents for members of the public even though they are not lawyers. They may be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Under North Carolina law, only licensed attorneys may provide legal services or prepare or help prepare legal documents for another person. The North Carolina State Bar is authorized to investigate and act on reports of the unauthorized practice of law.
The following questions and answers explain the unauthorized practice of law and how to report it to the State Bar. The questions and answers provide a simplified summary of the current state of the law, rules, and procedures relating to the unauthorized practice of law and the actions of the North Carolina State Bar's Authorized Practice Committee. The summary is not intended to be a comprehensive explanation of the unauthorized practice of law: it does not describe all possible violation of the law or all of the possible enforcement actions that may be taken. Additional information concerning the State Bar's regulation of the unauthorized practice of law may be found by consulting the State Bar Rules, 27 N.C.A.C. Subchapter 1D, Section .0200.
Q: What is the practice of law?
The North Carolina state legislature has defined the practice of law in North Carolina as:
• performing any legal service for another person, firm or corporation, with or without compensation;
• preparing court documents;
• assisting in legal work; or
• advising another person, firm or corporation about their legal rights. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 84-2.1)
This statute and two other statutes identify specific activities as the practice of law that may be performed only by attorneys. (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 84-4 and 84-5). The list of specifically identified activities that constitute the practice of law includes:
• Abstracting and passing upon titles to real estate;
• Organizing corporations;
• Preparing or aiding in the preparation of deeds, trusts, wills or other legal documents;
• Preparing or aiding in the preparation of probate petitions and accountings;
• Preparing or aiding in the preparation of court pleadings; and
• Appearing in court or before any judicial or quasi-judicial body on behalf of another.
This list of specific activities is provided only as examples. Any activities involving the preparation of legal documents, giving legal advice, or providing legal services for another constitutes the practice of law.
Q: What is the unauthorized practice of law?
The unauthorized practice of law is engaging in the practice of law in North Carolina or advertising or otherwise holding out to the public of an ability to provide legal services by someone other than a licensed North Carolina attorney. The unauthorized practice of law is illegal because a person who is not trained and licensed as an attorney may seriously harm the interests of a member of the public by providing incompetent legal services.
Q: Who may provide legal services in North Carolina ?
Under the statutes, only licensed North Carolina attorneys may provide legal services in North Carolina , represent that they are attorneys, or appear in court on behalf of another party.
Q: Are there any exceptions?
The primary exception to the unauthorized practice of law rules is the exception for self-representation – an individual may prepare legal documents for his own use and may represent himself or herself in court.
By statute and regulation, some federal agencies permit lawyers licensed in any jurisdiction and nonlawyers to provide limited legal services before that agency. Those agencies include:
• Social Security Administration;
• Internal Revenue Service;
• Patent and Trademark Office; and
• U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
Although these agencies permit certain activities by nonlawyers, the services that may be provided are limited and persons who are qualified to appear before these agencies may not hold themselves out as North Carolina attorneys.
An attorney licensed in another state may qualify to represent a party in a North Carolina court under a procedure known as pro hac vice admission as long as the North Carolina court authorizes the attorney to represent the party.
Q: May a non-lawyer do legal work for a relative, friend, or another person if the non-lawyer does not charge any money or fees for such work?
No. It is a violation of North Carolina's unauthorized practice of law statutes for a non-lawyer to practice law regardless of the relationship with the individual for whom the services are provided and regardless of the fact that no fees are charged. This is because the potential for harm still exists.
Q: May a non-lawyer represent another person in negotiations or settlement discussions on a legal claim, such as an automobile accident or personal injury matter?
No. Even if no lawsuit has been filed, assisting another person with settlement negotiations on a legal claim constitutes the unauthorized practice of law.
Q: May a paralegal represent another person or provide legal services directly to a member of the public?
No. A paralegal or other non-lawyer may only perform work constituting the practice of law if it is under the supervision and at the direction of a licensed North Carolina attorney. Attorneys may hire or contract with paralegals or other non-lawyers to perform such services provided the non-lawyers are properly supervised.
Q: May a business represent itself?
A business may prepare its own legal documents and may use nonlawyer employees to appear in small claims court on its behalf. However, corporations must be represented in other court proceedings by a licensed North Carolina attorney.
Q: May a nonlawyer help me fill out a legal form?
Generally, no, especially if the assistance involves helping you understand what needs to be filled in, advising you of the consequences of completing the form in a certain manner, or otherwise providing legal advice concerning the completion of the form. Additionally, advising a person that a particular legal form is appropriate for the person's legal needs is legal advice that may not be given by a nonlawyer.
Q: May a business provide legal services?
No, unless the business is a law firm or certain qualified, nonprofit organizations. Both by statute and court decision, a business entity, whether for profit or nonprofit, may not provide legal services to its customers, even if those services are performed by licensed attorneys.
Q: What can happen to someone who engages in the unauthorized practice of law?
The unauthorized practice of law is a misdemeanor criminal offense that may be prosecuted by the local district attorney. Additionally, accepting fees for unauthorized practice of law may involve other crimes, such as false pretense, that are felonies.
The State Bar may ask the courts for an injunction to prohibit a person or business from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
Engaging in unauthorized practice of law may also expose a person to potential civil liability to a person harmed by the unauthorized practice including potential claims of fraud or unfair and deceptive trade practices.
Q: What should I do if I am harmed by a nonlawyer engaged in unauthorized practice of law?
First, contact a licensed attorney for advice on your individual rights and remedies. Second, report the matter to the State Bar.
Q: How should I report the matter to the State Bar?
Your complaint should be in writing. No particular form is required. Include your name, address and phone number as well as the name, address, and phone number of the non-lawyer if you have that information. Try to set forth the facts on which your allegations are based. Include the names and contact information of any witnesses. Attach copies of any relevant court papers, documents, letters, or other materials with your complaint. Please do not send the original documents to the Bar office. We cannot be responsible for the return of originals. Address your complaint to:
Authorized Practice Committee
North Carolina State Bar
PO Box 25908
Raleigh , North Carolina 27611-5908
Or send by fax to: (919) 834-8156
Q: What happens after I report the matter to the State Bar?
The State Bar's Authorized Practice Committee has the authority to investigate suspected unauthorized practice of law, prosecute for injunctive relief, or refer the matter to other appropriate agencies. The staff of the State Bar will review the information you provide, conduct an appropriate investigation, and present it to the committee for a decision concerning the appropriate action.
Q: Will the person accused of unauthorized practice of law know about my complaint?
Probably. During the course of the investigation, the nonlawyer will be sent a summary of your complaint and may be sent a copy of your complaint and asked to provide a statement describing his or her version of events.
Q: When is a decision on a complaint likely to be rendered?
The Authorized Practice Committee meets quarterly in January, April, July, and October. The committee considers all complaints for which the investigation has been completed during the quarter. Whether an investigation is completed during the quarter in which it is filed depends upon many factors including:
• when the complaint was received;
• the complexity of the investigation; and
• the ability to locate the accused individual, material witnesses, and relevant evidence.
Q: May I attend a meeting of the Authorized Practice Committee?
Yes, all meetings of the committee are public.
Q: What actions can the Authorized Practice Committee take?
If it appears from investigation that there was a violation of the laws on unauthorized practice, the committee will either warn the nonlawyer about the conduct, issue a cease and desist letter, or seek an injunction depending on the circumstances. The committee may also refer the matter to other authorities that have jurisdiction, such as the District Attorney, if the facts warrant.
If it appears that there was no violation or there is not enough evidence to show a violation, the Committee will take no action, dismiss the matter and close the file.
Q: Who should I contact at the State Bar to discuss matters relating to the unauthorized practice of law?
David Johnson at (919) 828-4620.