Unauthorized practice of law, lawyer / attorney / JD / Esq.

In an international legal environment it is of paramount importance to determine who our interlocutor is, we cannot afford to assume that we are dealing with a licensed attorney. It is an issue which should not be taken lightly, as it could take us into the realm of the unauthorized practice of law.

Therefore, if we are communicating with a legal professional from the US, we must understand the following nuances.  Although the terms lawyer and attorney are used interchangeably in the US, there is a very important difference between them. Technically, a lawyer is someone who has attended law school. On the other hand, an attorney (or attorney at law) is a lawyer who has passed the bar exam and has been admitted to the Bar Association of the jurisdiction in which the attorney intends to practice law (for example, the state of California.

Accordingly, a lawyer who has graduated from law school, but has not passed the bar exam may add “JD” (Juris Doctor) to his/her name, but cannot sign as an attorney, as it might lead to prosecution based on unauthorized practice of law.

To make matters even more confusing, it is very common for attorneys in the US to add “Esq.” to their names (i.e John Pira, Esq.). Esquire is a term which originated in England, which was a title of respect used by certain professionals, but in the US is only used by attorneys.

The conclusion is that only someone who rightfully signs as “attorney”, “attorney at law” or “Esq.” is allowed to practice law and thus, can represent clients and give legal advice.

However, what is legal advice? The following definition might shed some light into this issue, but just as a starting point for debate and study, taking into account that the courts in the US have not come up with a uniform definition:   “unlike legal information, legal advice refers to the written or oral counsel about a legal matter that would affect the rights and responsibilities of the person receiving the advice. In addition, actual legal advice requires careful analysis of the law as it applies to a person´s specific situation –as opposed to speculation based on generic facts.” … “Examples: selecting, drafting, or completing legal documents or agreements that affect the legal rights of a person, representing a person before a court or other governing body, negotiating legal rights or responsibilities on behalf of a person, speculating an outcome, selecting or filling out specific forms on behalf of a client.” (http://hirealawyer.findlaw.com)

In sum, from a practical point of view, in the event that you need to verify whether the professional you are dealing with is in fact, a licensed attorney in the US, make sure you are provided with a bar number. The name and bar number of the attorney will allow you not only to verify that the legal professional is an attorney licensed to practice, but also if this attorney has a record for unethical behavior or malpractice.