When someone who is not qualified to practice law offers legal advice, prepares legal documents, or represents a client in court, this is known as unauthorized practice of law (UPL). Individual regions have their own statutes about what is considered unauthorized, and the line between perfectly legal activity and questionable activity is sometimes thin and confusing. If someone is convicted of it, he or she will face penalties; in many regions, people are warned and asked to simply desist before a case is pressed, as in some instances people unwittingly violate statutes about the unauthorized practice of law.
Laws against UPL are designed to protect consumers from fraudulent activity. As a general rule, they specifically restrict non-lawyers from any form of legal practice, as well as lawyers who have not qualified for a specific region's bar. For example, a lawyer from Florida may not practice law in Illinois unless he or she qualifies for the bar in Illinois or these states have bar reciprocity agreements. Legal document assistants, paralegals, notaries, and accountants also have their activities restricted by such statutes.
Things can get confusing when different areas have different restrictions. In some areas, for example, legal document assistants have a great deal of leeway, and their actions in one region could be considered unauthorized practice of law in another. As a general rule, people who work in any profession with legal implications should check on regional laws about UPL when they move, to ensure that they work within the law.
In some cases, the unauthorized practice is entirely accidental. For example, an accountant offers legal advice to a friend, or a notary prepares a few legal documents for a client. In this case, both parties are often unaware that the activity is actually illegal, and a warning usually suffices to prevent it from happening again. In other instances, someone may falsely claim to be a lawyer, or someone may offer legal services without being qualified.
In these cases of unauthorized practice of law, a court may take action, especially if the person's “services” ended up being harmful to his or her clients. The plethora of legal advice and document preparation services on the Internet has proved to be a particular topic of scrutiny, as it can be difficult to obtain information about legal qualifications and experience from a website. As a result, some people have been duped into purchasing legal documents and services from people who are not authorized to offer them, and this can result in legal catastrophes and general confusion.