Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, September 12, 2002


Page 3


State Bar Plans Celebration of Measure on Unauthorized Practice of Law


By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer


Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and state Sen. Gloria Romero will join the State Bar of California next Thursday in marking the enactment of legislation cracking down on the unauthorized practice of law, State Bar President Karen Nobumoto said yesterday.

The special ceremony at the Board of Governors meeting in Los Angeles follows on the heels of Gov. Gray Davis’ signing of Senate Bill 1459, a Romero bill that became a top priority of Nobumoto and other bar leaders this year.

Nobumoto, a prosecutor in Cooley’s office, made boosting the penalties for unauthorized practice a top priority for  her presidency.

“I’m thrilled,” Nobumoto said on hearing Davis signed the bill late Thursday. “This stiffens the penalties a lot for unauthorized practice. It changes what kind of fraud you want to do, having serious jail time attached to it. It makes a huge difference in the world of white collar crime.”

Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat, pushed through a measure a year ago that addressed the damages and relief that victims of bogus lawyers are entitled to.

Romero began targeting unlicensed practice after hearing complaints from victims, primarily in immigrant communities, of business that offer legal assistance with immigration and employment matters without advising the clients that they are not members of the State Bar.

The clients frequently are led to believe that they have hired lawyers who can protect their legal rights. Among those targeted by the bill are businesspeople known as notarios, which in the U.S. could accurately be translated as notaries but in some Latin American nations denotes licensed attorneys.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Curt Livesay said his office has been following the “significant problem” of unauthorized practice for several years, but he credited Nobumoto with getting the law enacted.

“She gave the matter significant focus this year,” Livesay said.

Nobumoto’s last trial before taking on her State Bar duties was the prosecution of a man who falsely held himself out as a lawyer.

She said at the time that she wanted to assure the defendant got prison time. But the law at the time made unauthorized practice a misdemeanor, allowing some non-lawyers to include the fines in their cost of doing business.

Disbarred or suspended lawyers could be charged with felonies and do prison time, but people who were never State Bar members who committed the same crime could not.

In her case, Nobumoto was able to allege grand theft along with the unauthorized practice counts to secure prison time. But in her speech to the State Bar at the annual meeting, exactly a year earlier, she said toughening the penalties for unauthorized practice would not only protect consumers, but would protect the legal profession from the ill will created by those who merely pretended to be lawyers.

Nobumoto said yesterday that the only thing missing from the bill was the ability to charge as a felony. Felony provisions were removed at the insistence of members of the Legislature concerned about the Three Strikes law.

State Bar legislative advocate Larry Doyle said several legislators agreed to support the bill only if felony provisions were removed.

“They did not want to be in a position of making unauthorized practice punishable as a third strike with life in prison,” Doyle said.

He noted that some lawmakers have shown “with their votes” that they will support no new nonviolent felonies until the Three Strikes Law is reviewed and perhaps modified.

Under the Three Strikes Law, anyone convicted of two felonies, with at least one specified serious or violent felony, can receive a 25-year-to-life sentence on a third felony conviction—a “third strike.”

Nobumoto worked with Romero to modify the bill in committee when the Three Strikes Law objections were expressed.

Livesay said he was disappointed to lose the felony provisions.

“But I’ll still take it, though, as a misdemeanor,” he said.

He added that once his office and other prosecutors gain some experience working with the new law “we can step back and ratchet it up” to a felony with new laws, if the situation warrants it.

The measure makes a misdemeanor conviction of practicing law without a license punishable by six months to a year in county jail and a $1,000 fine, or both.

It also creates a minimum punishment of 90 days in jail for subsequent convictions. A sentencing court would have to explain any variation from these standards on the record.

Romero noted that many of the victims of unscrupulous people holding themselves out as lawyers are seniors.

“They save their hard-earned cash just to obtain legal consultation to ensure that their legal needs are processed diligently and correctly,” Romero said. “This law sends a strong message that if you violate the public’s trust, then you will feel the full brunt of the law.”


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company