Can Only Non-Lawyers Commit the Crime of the “Unauthorized Practice of Law”?

Michael Sean Quinn*
(See below) 


Not exactly. Some folks who are not lawyers, and never have been, can commit this crime. Some people who have been lawyer, but aren’t at the relevant time licensed lawyers, e.g., because they have been disbarred, can commit this crime. Lawyers can also do it if they are not licensed in a particular jurisdiction. They are equivalent to non-lawyers in those jurisdictions.

1) “L,” a fake-lawyer named “Kim” did estate planning work for 10 years and had a good reputation among other lawyers and clients alike. She even served as president of the county bar.  Unfortunately, if the Pa. AG has it right, Kim had not been to law school; she had not so much as taken the bar (hence, it must be granted that she did not fail it); and she forged her law licence. She has been charged with unauthorized practice of law. 

As crimes go, UPL is not a terribly serious one. (But see below.) Still, one in inclined to think she will not be a member of Pa. bar (or any other) for long. One also might be inclined to think that there is a more serious criminal charge in the offing–one surrounding the forging of the license and the misrepresentations to clients that are thereby nearly triggered.

There is an interesting fact about language in the ABA blog containing this story. Kim’s lawyer is quoted as saying that his client is an “incredibly competence person[,] and she worked very diligently and was devoted to the people she served in the community.”

Of course, one can be a competent person–one competent at personhood–and not be a competent lawyer. But what does it mean to say that someone is “incredibly X”? Literally it means, that someone’s doing X as well as the someone is doing it is not credible. That means it is not worth of belief as it stands, and that means no one should believe it without further evidence of the right sort. Yet we hear jargon involving “‘incredibly’ this or that” used all time meaning meaning nothing more than that something is quite remarkable. This use of that word  is incredible.


2) I said earlier that UPL is not a very serious crime, as crimes go. Maybe I was being overly general.  In Corpus Christi there was a PI firm belonging to William Bonilla.  It was a money-making outfit but neither Daddy William nor his son David were well regarded.

David got into some real trouble several years ago. Some of the story is roughly this. 

David was convicted of rather more serious stuff, $500,000 theft from 37 clients, but given 10 years probation, to be sure, a light sentence, but then he had repaid the money and was out of the profession.  Dad turned in his license to avoid being disciplined for his son’s “sins.  Two of the conditions on David’s probation were that, (1) while he could work in a law firm, he could not practice law, and (2) no drinking.  (#(1) obviously is the crime of Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL).) [Does anything about this tend to suggest that there might have been a drinking problem or two in his family?]

David had a son, Clay. Clay worked in William’s firm.  After William, the Dad and Granddad, turned in his license, Clay took over the first, so–I guess–David was working for his son Clay, while he was UPL-ing it.*

Eventually there was a probation revocation hearing (I think that’s what it must have been, from the stand, David confessed to violating both conditions. Off to the slammer for  hardly poor Davey Dad. That was in August 2014. In January 2015, poor David asked that he be placed back on probation–“shock probation”–instead of being kept in prison since going to prison had “shocked him beyond description.” 

In other words, David is asking to be returned to probation since he found prison life so surprising and unpleasant. There are pic of Davey weeping on the stand when describing his shock. 

In a sense, David’s UPL violation, though not actually the criminal charge sent him to prison, if only for a few months. 

*David’s lack of a good nature seems to knew few limits.  In Texas, as in many other states, if the head of a firm should have been aware of the professional misconduct of one of the employees of the firm, e.g., a lawyer or a paralegal, then the head of the firm can have disciplinary problems.  Thus, if Andrew, the managing partner, knows that Zebressa, an associate, is violating the law governing lawyers, and Andrew does nothing about it, Andrew can be hauled up, just as Zebressa can.  But this is what David did to his Dad, who had to end his granted undistinguished career and who might have deserved it anyway, he did also to his son. 

One might wonder whether Texas, and maybe Corpus Christi especially,  has a propensity for breading this sort of thing. In 2009 Mauricio Celis was sentenced to a year in jail and 10 years probation after having been found guilty of 14 counts of UPL charges. In addition, he had to pay $1.35M in restitution. 

Celis claimed that he did not impersonate a lawyer or a public official and never claimed to be one, but he acknowledged that he managed an office that “colitigated” cases with other law firms. Some believe that the reason Celis didn’t get “caught” by the bar for a long time was the way “colitigation” arrangements may work. One of the keys to that kingdom is that whoever “runs” the case, runs away with a fare fraction of the money, though s/he may not actually run the case.

On thing is sure. Celis made oodles of money. He was regarded as a principal contributor to  local policies and to Catholic charities. (This last one raises an interesting philosophical/theological question. If a charity knows that a contributor has acquired his contribution by immoral means, is the charity obligated to refuse the gift? Or give it to the poor once it is discovered? What about if it is only illegal and not really very immoral?)

Celis’s downfall began, apparently, with one of his personal injury lawyers competitors reported him to the state bar and took a public stance by denouncing Celis in a short TV commercial. Some might be inclined to suppose that Celis and Henry competed for some of the same range of business. 

The matter resurfaced again last year.  The well known Northwestern University, located in Evanston, just outside Chicago, has a well known lawschool, and it offers a Master’s Degree in Legal Letters (LLM).  It is mainly for foreigners who want to know something about U.S. law, e.g., because they are in the general counsel’s office of Nigerian Natural Gas and Electric (a fiction entity) and need to know about some of the twists and turns in U.S. commercial law or some of American O & G insurance law. 

Shortly before Celis would have taken his degree, someone squealed to NW and it expelled him as an undesirable. Celis promptly sued the school, but the case was eventually dismissed by agreement. 

Celis never seem to learn. Dan Hinkel, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, reported there on June 18, 2014 that he spoke to Celis and the man told him “They look at me as being some shyster fakingmy credentials[.] I am a Mexican lawyer.” He said this eventhough he has repeatedly said he is not a lawyer at all, and “I let the lawyers do the lawyering.” 

Michael Sean Quinn
Law Office of Michael Sean Quinn
Quinn and Quinn
1300 West Lynn #208
Austin, Texas 78703
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