On December 12, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill making certain instances of the unauthorized practice of law a Class E felony, punishable by up to four years imprisonment. Responsive Law has generally opposed bills that increase penalties for UPL, as they usually exist primarily to support the lawyer monopoly over all law-related services. As a result, they work to the detriment of consumers by prohibiting them from using non-lawyer alternatives for less complex legal matters.
However, we did not oppose the New York bill because it is narrowly targeted at preventing fraudulent behavior that causes real harm to consumers. First, to trigger the felony provisions, a person must be impersonating a lawyer (i.e., using a title that implies they are a licensed lawyer), not merely offering law-related services. Second, felony penalties only apply when there has been damages to another person of $1000 or more. This provision should prevent the bar from using the new law to attack its non-lawyer competition, as anyone providing real services to consumers will not have caused damages to anyone.
The new law goes into effect in November 2013. We hope that prosecutors and the bar will recognize that the intent of this legislation is to prevent consumer harm and that they will not stretch its provisions to protect the lawyer cartel.