Everyone concedes that only licensed lawyers can practice law, but that statement begs an important question: what does it mean to “practice law”? The question is not an academic one, as the California legal marketplace fills with non-lawyers providing services that only lawyers used to provide. “Legal document assistants,” for example, now help people fill out court forms. Lawyers and legal professionals from outside California, and indeed outside the United States, use the Internet to find freelance legal work drafting contracts and other legal documents. A number of companies use software to create wills, articles of incorporation, and contracts for people, based on data their clients input into their website.
These outside lawyers, non-lawyer professionals, and companies strongly prefer a narrow definition of the term “practice of law,” so they can expand the range of services they can provide. Consumers are tempted to use these alternatives to California lawyers in order to save on legal fees, and rely on these alternatives to be honest as to the services they can and cannot legally provide. The result is constant pressure on the line that divides the activities constituting the practice of law from the activities that do not. Given that the unauthorized practice of law is illegal, however, it serves everyone’s interest to know exactly what constitutes the “practice of law,” and who may legally perform various law-related tasks.
This article begins a series on the unauthorized practice of law in California. It first confirms that the practice of law in California is generally restricted to lawyers who are active members of the California State Bar. It then addresses the more difficult question of what constitutes “the practice of law” in California, and identifies the broad range of activities that can only be performed by active State Bar members. Despite the position of many non-lawyers, California law makes clear that most activities in the legal arena in California must be performed by a California lawyer or under that lawyer’s supervision. Non-lawyers who perform any of these tasks are thus squarely violating California law.