Professor schools Cooley students on Unauthorized Practice of Law 101

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Unauthorized Practice of Law in students often has a quite different motivation than in the general populace, so requires a different kind of awareness, indeed, vigilance.
So says Thomas M. Cooley Law School Professor Christopher Hastings, and he should know.
Hastings is the chair of the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) Committee of the State Bar. That committee is responsible not only for guidance on UPL matters and education on UPL for the general public and the legal profession, but also the policing of UPL within the state (“the filing and prosecution of actions seeking to enjoin the unauthorized practice” according to the standing committee description).
Hastings, formerly with Miller Canfield and later a partner in Drew Cooper and Anding, has been a full-time professor at Cooley’s Grand Rapids campus since 2007. A goodly number of his students came to hear him speak as part of the Integrity in Our Communities series Cooley hosts — a fact which delighted Hastings.
Karen Rowlader, Assistant Director, Ethics, Service and Professionalism at Cooley Grand Rapids, welcomed the crowd of about 75 students, and turned the mike over to Victoria Vuletich to introduce Hastings.
Vuletich, now at Cooley as well, said that Hastings is a long-time member of the UPL Committee, and it had been her privilege to work with him when she was at the State Bar. She is now a member of the UPL committee herself. Vuletich called Hastings “a really wonderful, decent human being,” and Hastings returned the favor by saying, “I can’t live up to that — it’s Victoria Vuletich who’s such a wonderful human being.”
Hastings then launched into an entertaining, but thorough, PowerPoint on the unauthorized practice of law.
First he said that, strictly speaking, UPL is not a crime, and is not punished like a crime. It is treated as contempt of court, specifically now contempt of the Michigan Supreme Court. Governed by MCL 600.916, UPL includes the act of practicing law and giving legal advice without being a member of the bar as well as representing oneself as authorized to practice law. The latter is UPL even if there is no actual act.
The UPL Committee he chairs is responsible for overseeing UPL complaints and channeling them properly. The committee works hand-in-hand with the State Bar’s Character and Fitness Committee, which may prevent students from taking the bar.
Hastings divided UPL offenders into three categories. “Institutional offenders” are those who know that UPL is wrong, and some, like realtors and title company personnel, stray over the line into UPL because they are anxious to make a sale. “They want to keep the lawyer out of the deal,” Hastings said. Others include “trust mills” and legal document preparers, such as LegalZoom.com,  though Hastings stressed that if all the advisor does is give the “client” a form and instruct them to fill it out, it does not constitute UPL.
The second category is “rebels and outlaws,” such as disbarred attorneys, paralegals who moonlight based on knowing the law but are not actually licensed, and jailhouse lawyers — who, he pointed out, are never prosecuted.
And the third category is law students. Hastings said he had puzzled over the high number of legal students the committee sees, and then figured it out. “It’s because you have good hearts - part of you is training to be a lawyer but there’s this much larger part of you that doesn’t think about things the way a lawyer does.”
Hastings said he recently had a student ask him, “How can helping my grandmother be the unauthorized practice of law?”
Even though there are no criminal penalties for UPL, students should care because the person reporting UPL, or concerned about UPL, is a potential employer or colleague — or opponent.
In response to questions afterwards, Hastings offered advice to the students about how to avoid being put in the position of unauthorized practice, and what to do if they realize they have crossed the line.
Strategies include pre-empting discussion immediately by telling people the serious consequences of risking UPL, and talking the situation over with a trusted advisor for assistance on where to draw the line.