• Los Angeles County has its own manual for prosecutors on the unauthorized practice of law. Indeed, California is aggressive in protecting consumers from UPL; someone without legal training who helps write contracts is considered a consultant - and possibly culpable.
• Advising a person that a particular form is appropriate for the individual's legal needs is legal advice that cannot be given by a nonattorney.
• Be wary of filling out a contract form for someone else if it requires details beyond date, rate and the particulars of the room block.
Lawyers are an interesting group. We go through three years of law school, prepare arduously for a bar exam that we hope to pass, then receive a license to practice in the state in which we have passed the exam. As a result, states, bar associations and various regulatory bodies strive to protect the public from the unauthorized practice of law, or UPL.
The intent of UPL rules is to "protect the public from being unlawfully advised and represented in legal matters by unqualified persons." Now, what exactly does this mean for the layperson who prepares meeting contracts on behalf of a third party?
Negotiating for events
You should know that there are limited exceptions to the UPL rules. With residential real estate matters, lawyers and local real estate associations have created joint agreements allowing certain administrative services to be performed by the agent, who typically has no law degree - basically a fill-in-the-blanks agreement. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the meetings industry.
Meeting professionals often negotiate and write legal contracts, which could fall under the definition of UPL. We have seen instances where some have been challenged because they promoted their contract services.
Accusations of UPL do not tend to be brought against those who finalize contracts for the company at which they are employed. However, a third-party planner who negotiates and writes the agreement could be in jeopardy. A possible way around this is to have the finalization of the contract done by the client who works for the meeting's host or by a lawyer.
Fill in the blanks
Another touchy area is whether a nonlawyer can help someone else fill out a legal form. Generally, the answer is no, if the assistance involves the nonlawyer advising about the consequences of completing the form or otherwise providing what could be construed as legal advice concerning the completion of the form.
To further complicate matters, the law makes a difference between scrivening and drafting. Scrivening, an old English term, means filling in blanks on a standard contract; only lawyers can draft the rights and obligations of the parties involved. Note: Being paid to create the contract indicates that the service is more difficult than routine, and the more difficult the service, the more likely a lawyer needs to be involved.
Don't get caught
The unauthorized practice of law is not only a civil issue, but also can be a criminal offense. An injunction could be entered to prohibit a person or business from engaging in UPL, thus exposing the individual to potential claims for fraud or unfair and deceptive trade practices.
Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner of the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., specializing in meetings and hospitality law. Email questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.