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In its most general sense, the practice of law involves giving legal advice to clients, drafting legal documents for clients, and representing clients in legal negotiations and court proceedings such as lawsuits, and is applied to the professional services of a lawyer or attorney at law, barrister, solicitor, or civil law notary. However, there is a substantial amount of overlap between the practice of law and various other professions where clients are represented by agents. These professions include real estate, banking, accounting, and insurance. Moreover, a growing number of legal document assistants (LDAs) are offering services which have traditionally been offered only by lawyers and their employee paralegals. Many documents may now be created by computer-assisted drafting libraries, where the clients are asked a series of questions posed by the software in order to construct the legal documents.

United States

In the United Statesmarker, the practice of law is conditioned upon admission to the bar of a particular state or other territorial jurisdiction. The American Bar Association and the American Law Institute are among the organizations that are concerned with the interests of lawyers as a profession and the promulgation of uniform standards of professionalism and ethics, but regulation of the practice of law is left to the individual states.

"Unauthorized practice of law" (UPL) is an act sometimes prohibited by statute, regulation, or court rules. For example, Texasmarker law generally prohibits a person who is not an attorney from representing a client in a personal injury or property damage matter, and punishes a violation as a misdemeanor. Some states also criminalize the separate behavior of falsely claiming to be lawyer (in Texas, for example, this is a felony).

Interpretations of the term "unauthorized practice of law" vary among jurisdictions. For example, the use of legal document assistants (LDAs) in California is tolerated to a high degree. Many of the activities LDAs perform in California would be considered the "unauthorized practice of law" if performed in New York.

Most unauthorized practice of law may be unintentional. Probably the most common violators are accountants, paralegals, notaries public, and people who formerly worked for an attorney. Many times what seems to them to be "common knowledge" or "just helping out a friend" in fact crosses the line into practice of law. For instance, many accountants who represent small businesses (This would be more accurate to say corporations.) will "fill out some forms" to create a corporation. Depending on the complexity of the documents and whether they advise the small business, this could be drafting legal documents, which would require a law license. A notary public who reads instructions, asks questions, and tells a person which forms to use and how to fill them out may be giving legal advice. Buying a legal form in a store and helping a friend fill it out involves giving legal advice and drafting legal documents.

In most states, unauthorized practice of law is a criminal offense. However, while there are cases of individuals being prosecuted for the unauthorized practice of law, absent fraud, theft, or serious violations of consumer protection laws, common practice is simply to explain to the person that the questioned activities constituted unauthorized practice of law and get an agreement that the person will desist.

Attorney participation

In the United States, the rules of professional conduct generally prohibit an attorney from assisting a non-attorney from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. An attorney therefore may not partner with or split fees with a non-attorney in the performance of any sort of legal work. Furthermore, an attorney may not employ a disbarred or suspended attorney in a legal practice where former clients of the disbarred or suspended attorney will be represented.


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