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Can a self-taught enthusiast in an unrelated occupation, without a law degree, without any sort of formal legal education nor bar admittance, help other people study law? What would be the limitations?

For simplicity, let's assume an honest person who makes it clear that they're not a lawyer: can they volunteer as a first step in informing another person of their possible legal options (e.g., in landlord-tenant disputes), such that a person is more knowledgeable in case they do decide to contact or retain a lawyer?

Can such an enthusiast accept fees and/or gifts directly from someone they help study law, like a beer or lunch, for their help/suggestions in navigating the law? Can they casually mention that if the person wins their case, and thinks that such an enthusiast helped them do so, that a payment would be welcome? What would be the limitations?

Likewise, what about Small Claims Court? Although I know that in other courts you generally can't represent another person unless you have been admitted to the bar, Small Claims Courts in California don't actually admit any lawyers who aren't parties to a dispute. So, can a volunteer enthusiast help represent someone else in a small claims court, in either California or Texas?

If an enthusiast helps prepare certain documents on behalf of the plaintiff for Small Claims Court in California or Texas, or, for example, even the demand letter that would have to be sent before a small claims action could be started in Texas, could they negotiate with the plaintiff for a certain payout of the money recovered?

  • This is related to at least one discussion on Meta, and some of this answer may be informative. – feetwet Jul 5 '15 at 21:18
  • @feetwet, i think the quoted text there is overly broad. taken literally, it basically would prohibit any non-licensed individual to suggest to someone, "you should sue them!", unless they're clearly joking. it would sound like it would certainly violate my right to free speech if i, as a software engineer with a research-based graduate degree (e.g., clearly not a complete fool), were to be prohibited from giving case-specific information and possible interpretation of landlord-tenant statutes and case law, after spending a week or two in a law library for fun and profit. – cnst Jul 5 '15 at 21:59
  • @feetwet, your edit seems fair, but I didn't like that you removed the fact that we're talking about someone who's clearly not trying to make it their whole business, in other words, instead being more of a community service of specifically helping fellow tenants against the greedy investment-fund-based landlords – cnst Jul 5 '15 at 22:03
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    I agree that the legal system appears to take an excessively hard line against UPL. I don't know if the apparent legal answer is the practical answer, which is why I haven't tried to answer your question! Regarding the edits: I didn't think it was or could be material what amount of time an amateur/enthusiast spent on this hobby or side-business or whatever the law might call it. If it were material then what could it be a function of -- waking hours, hours per year, hours spent in other pursuits? – feetwet Jul 5 '15 at 23:05
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    @cnst First, you could most definitely not make a profit off of your help. That would definitely create an attorney-client relationship and subject you to UPL liability. Additionally, any advice that you give, if legal advice, would subject you to legal liability, among other things, for UPL. read feetwet's link for what it says, not for what you want it to say, specifically regarding the difference between "legal advice" and "legal information" – Andrew Jul 6 '15 at 14:37
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In California, UPL has a flexible definition and is analyzed situationally, as is the formation of an attorney-client relationship. The shorthand definition for UPL is usually given as something like "doing what lawyers do." When your "help" goes beyond "studying law" and begins to deal with applying that law to a particular legal matter, you're definitely in the neighborhood. If you're encouraging people to compensate you monetarily, even on the sly (or perhaps especially on the sly) that's just going to make it shadier.

There's no clear line that divides "assistance" from "advice" or "information" from "counsel." You're not going to find a statute or professional rule that helpfully explains just how close you can get to UPL through wink-wink-nudge-nudge "unofficial-but-maybe-you-should-still-pay-me" legal "information-but-not-advice" before liability attaches, which seems to be the drift of the question (although I understand it was edited).

People v. Merchants Protective Corp., 209 P.363, 365 (1922)

'As the term is generally understood, the practice of the law is the doing or performing services in a court of justice, in any matter depending therein, throughout its various stages, and in conformity to the adopted rules of procedure. But in a larger sense it includes legal advice and counsel, and the preparation of legal instruments and contracts by which legal rights are secured although such matter may or may not be depending in a court.' Quoting In the case of Eley v.Miller, 7 Ind. App. 529, 34 N. E. 836.

Baron v. Los Angeles, 2 C.3d 535, 86 C.R. 673, 469 P.2d 353 (1970).

"(T)he Legislature adopted the state bar act in 1927 and used the term 'practice law' without defining it. [FN7] The conclusion is obvious and inescapable that in so doing it accepted both the definition already judicially supplied for the term and the declaration of the Supreme Court (in 'Merchants') that it had a sufficiently definite meaning to need no further definition. The definition above quoted from People v. Merchants' Protective Corp. has been approved and accepted in the subsequent California decisions (citations), and must be regarded as definitely establishing, for the jurisprudence of this state, the meaning of the term 'practice law." (People v. Ring (1937) supra. 26 Cal.App.2d Supp. 768, 772, 70 P.2d 281, 283.)

For comparison, the Texas Bar's UPL Committee has a digest of the applicable statutes and rules here (they also provide a few appellate decisions that might interest you).

In terms of legitimately paid non-attorney help with preparing documents and the like, here's a long discussion on avoiding UPL from a Legal Document Assistant trade association site.

Realistically, UPL is investigated in retrospect, mostly in response to complaints. The proper context to analyze this hypothetical is to envision the non-client furious at the non-lawyer after the case has been lost. If everything goes well the non-lawyer probably gets his "gift" and the State Bar is none the wiser. (Although I suppose there's the further wrinkle that if the non-client wins and doesn't provide the "gift" then the non-lawyer likely has no good remedy).

  • Here's the Texas appellate decisions. – daffy Jul 17 '15 at 13:46
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    Also, it sounds like you're interested in a how a community organizer might form a tenants-rights organization and provide self-help resources to tenants in rental disputes without violating the prohibition on UPL. That's a more specific question with more to it, and would require drilling down into the specifics of the proposed org, the nature of the assistance to be provided, and how. The Bar and the State do show some flexibility when it comes to community programs meant to improve access to justice, etc. – daffy Jul 17 '15 at 13:54
  • yes, basically, that's my interest, but perhaps more on the informal side of the scale; thanks for your answers! – cnst Jul 17 '15 at 14:54
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Can a self-taught enthusiast in an unrelated occupation, without a law degree, without any sort of formal legal education nor bar admittance, help other people study law? What would be the limitations?

An enthusiast can discuss the law in general terms without applying laws to particular facts, without claiming any legal credential, and without making recommendations as to a course of action.

For example, an economics professor can discuss how various rules of law impact the economy in general, and a PhD in political science, or a social studies or journalism teacher, could discuss constitutional law in general.

An essential element of the practice of law is either acting on behalf of someone else, or providing fact specific advice to someone else. Circumstances that involve neither of these circumstances are almost never the practice of law. Circumstances that involve one or the other are often, but not always, the practice of law.

There is considerable regional variation in what constitutes the practice of law. In general, the practice of law is construed more narrowly in the West (including both Texas and California) than in the East, and more narrowly in historically sparsely populated states (e.g. Alaska and Montana or Colorado or Wyoming), than in more densely populated states (including both Texas and California). Thus, California and Texas tend to be in the middle of the range from very narrow definitions of the practice of law to very expansive definitions of the practice of law.

Basically, places with more lawyers per capita historically have done more to protect lawyer's turf, while in places that have historically had fewer lawyer's per capita, conduct that could arguably be considered the practice of law has been tolerated out of necessity.

Also, what constitutes the practice of law in connection with the federal government is often more lenient than what constitutes the practice of law in connection with the state government.

For example, administrative law forums related to the federal government (e.g. tax court and representing clients in audits, or government contract disputes) more often permit non-lawyers to conduct legal practice-like activity than administrative law forums in state government, although sometimes non-lawyer participation is allowed in both (e.g. non-lawyers are often permitted in unemployment hearings).

For simplicity, let's assume an honest person who makes it clear that they're not a lawyer: can they volunteer as a first step in informing another person of their possible legal options (e.g., in landlord-tenant disputes), such that a person is more knowledgeable in case they do decide to contact or retain a lawyer?

This isn't perfectly cut and dry, but basically once someone is applying the law to the facts of someone else's case, or making recommendations on a course of action (other than to merely get a lawyer in a particular situation), no.

It is acceptable to inform someone of places where low cost or free legal advice or self-help resources can be obtained, for example, in a directory type format.

Can such an enthusiast accept fees and/or gifts directly from someone they help study law, like a beer or lunch, for their help/suggestions in navigating the law? Can they casually mention that if the person wins their case, and thinks that such an enthusiast helped them do so, that a payment would be welcome? What would be the limitations?

No, other than minimal payment for being a scrivener (i.e. basically typist or interpreter) as described below, or for publications or lectures on general legal topics as described above.

So, can a volunteer enthusiast help represent someone else in a small claims court, in either California or Texas?

No. This is a cut and dry rule. The only exception is the corporate officers or LLC managers can usually represent an entity in small claims court.

If an enthusiast helps prepare certain documents on behalf of the plaintiff for Small Claims Court in California or Texas,

A non-lawyer can help someone who is illiterate or doesn't speak English or is functionally illiterate or can't type fill in official forms and directing people to the relevant instructions, and can review court forms to see that all blanks were completed and that the answers are in the right fill in the blank parts of the form (e.g. which person is the plaintiff and which person is the defendant). But, otherwise no.

for example, even the demand letter that would have to be sent before a small claims action could be started in Texas, could they negotiate with the plaintiff for a certain payout of the money recovered?

No and no, unless the demand letter was written by the person making the demand on their own behalf. A limited exception is usually recognized for insurance adjusters evaluating claims on behalf of an insurance company or pre-litigation resolution of disputes by collection agencies and employees of creditors.

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The existence of this site - where non-lawyers regularly help others study law and become more informed about how to work with the law, including "as a first step in informing another person of their possible legal options.... such that a person is more knowledgeable in case they do decide to contact or retain a lawyer" - indicates that yes, at least the main thrust of this question is allowed. People here are "compensated" by upvotes, reputation, and comments, and generally can't require payment in exchange for their time and efforts, nor make their work contingent on any sort of reward.

Trying to be someone's lawyer without a license is not allowed, but being a research assistant of "here are pointers to documents you might want to read" is something even a librarian might do, if the librarian cared enough to learn about what the person was trying to learn.

  • "Trying to be someone's lawyer without a license is not allowed" in some jurisdictions but in others it is permitted. – Francis Davey Mar 21 '17 at 15:27
  • Interestingly, one can also be a small claims judge without a license in some jurisdictions. – WBT Mar 24 '17 at 12:01

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