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What is Unauthorized Practice of Law?

And how can an attorney help in Missouri?

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, in fact, is somewhat unique in that it 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.”

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.

“We would obviously look at the individual case and see if it has merit on its own,” he 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,” he continues. “It’s a form document, so you’re going to see that same charge over and over again.”

If you believe you’ve been targeted with the unauthorized practice of law, don’t hesitate to reach out to an experienced attorney. While Missouri enacted its penalties to protect consumers from expenses they shouldn’t incur, that doesn’t mean they’re easy to spot.

“It’s really paying attention to detail,” says Roberts, who notes that consumers should always ask questions if they don’t understand what they’re singing. “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.”

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

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