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Is It a Crime to Impersonate a Lawyer?

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By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on May 13, 2016 1:57 PM

You're not a lawyer and you don't even play one on TV, but sometimes you pretend to be one to get things done. Is impersonating a lawyer a crime?

Yes, most likely, although context is everything. You won't end up in jail if you strongly insinuate that you are an attorney to influence a store clerk to serve you (and it's unlikely to help anyway considering how little people care for lawyers). But if you actually practice law without a license and misrepresent yourself to clients, you face criminal and civil liability.

Faking It

Just this month, a man in West Palm Beach was sued civilly by two people who say he falsely represented himself as an attorney. In that case, the man actually went to court, signed documents, and allegedly told a judge that he was licensed. This is misrepresentation, and every state has a way to punish this type of fraud.

Even if a state does not have a specific statute to address the false practice of law, there are general deceptive trade practice statutes that can serve as a basis for criminal cases. The precise charge that would be applicable to a person claiming to be a lawyer would depend on the details of what they did, how much money was obtained through the fraud, and the extent to which others were injured by the misrepresentation.

Professional Liars

Someone who opens an office, advertises, hangs false diplomas on the wall, and goes to court for clients commits a massive fraud. The consequences for this will be much more severe than signing a letter with the word "esquire." Still, both are intentional misrepresentations, or frauds.

Pretending to be a lawyer is not a good idea but it has worked for some. Last year, The New York Times reported that the news organization Al Jazeera was represented by an unlicensed attorney serving as General Counsel. David W. Harleton was not admitted to practice law in any jurisdiction in the US but was working on major cases for a major organization, taking "fake it until you make it" to a whole new level.

Check with the state bar association to ensure your lawyer is licensed if you have any cause for concern. A lawyer's licensing is a matter of public record.

Accused?

If you are accused of a crime, speak to a lawyer. Many criminal defense attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to assess your case.

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