What is Unauthorized Practice of Law?

And how can an attorney help in Missouri?

By Andrew Brandt | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on October 18, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Christopher E. Roberts

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When you hear the phrase ‘unauthorized practice of law,’ you may think of someone in a courtroom pretending to be a lawyer, doling out legal advice or legal services.

“That can come up,” says Christopher E. Roberts, an attorney at Butsch Roberts & Associates in St. Louis. “But it most commonly comes up with preparing certain documents, like debt settlement companies acting like they’re law firms by charging retainer fees.”

Missouri Has a Statute Penalizing the Unauthorized Practice of Law

Missouri has a specific statutory penalty for businesses that engage in the unauthorized practice of law.

Roberts notes that the penalty originated from car dealerships that were charging document preparation fees for documents that, while legal in nature, weren’t being handled by an actual attorney.

“They’d be preparing documents that are legal in nature, and they would be charging a fee for those to be prepared. There’s a lot of class action litigation that arose from that,” he says. “Now, in Missouri, the law has changed. If the dealerships have a certain disclosure, they can charge a fee up to a certain amount.”

Suing Over the Unauthorized Practice of Law

If a dealership is charging a fee but isn’t disclosing it to you—or you believe a debt settlement company is improperly charging you a retainer fee—you may have a case.

Of course, though, that’s easier said than done.

“To be frank about it, the non-lawyer, for the most part, is probably not going to know if it’s an unauthorized practice of law or not,” says Roberts. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. But I encourage people to pay attention to detail and ask questions if they’re not really sure what they’re being charged.”

For individual unauthorized practice of law cases, attorneys work on a contingency fee basis, meaning they don’t get paid unless you win. If your case turns into a class action and it settles, the lawyer fees will be determined by the court. Roberts notes that, if given the chance, they’ll often file unauthorized practice cases as class actions.

To be frank about it, the non-lawyer, for the most part, is probably not going to know if it’s an unauthorized practice of law or not. It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. But I encourage people to pay attention to detail and ask questions if they’re not really sure what they’re being charged.

Christopher E. Roberts

How Attorneys Assess if the Unauthorized Practice of Law Has Occurred

While Missouri enacted its penalties to protect consumers from expenses they shouldn’t incur, that doesn’t mean they’re easy to spot.

“We would obviously look at the individual case and see if it has merit on its own,” Roberts says. “Then we’d have to do some research to see if it’s widespread or if it’s unique to the person that brought this to our attention. The documents usually prove the case. It’s a form document, so you’re going to see that same charge over and over again.”

Roberts notes that consumers should always ask questions if they don’t understand what they’re singing: “It’s really paying attention to detail,“ he says. “As lawyers, we have to study it closely. You have to know what the statutes are. I would look line item by line item. It’s not just, ‘Hey, $20,000 for the car and that’s it.’ There’s a whole litany of charges imposed, and I’ll go down each of them. If it’s questionable, then I’ll research it.”

Find an Experienced Attorney to Assess Your Case

Before practicing law, an individual generally must have earned a legal education from an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school. They must have passed your state bar to become a licensed attorney, and they need to be in good standing in the legal profession, abiding by the rules of professional conduct.

If you believe you’ve been targeted with the unauthorized practice of law through legal documents or other legal matters that a non-lawyer engaged in, use the Super Lawyers directory to find a qualified and experienced attorney for an evaluation of your case.

For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of professional responsibility and legal malpractice.

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