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The State Bar in California takes as many measures as possible to ensure that people who are licensed to practice law in California abide by both ethical and professional guidelines. Any person who violates these standards can be potentially suspended or disbarred. If an attorney is put on involuntary inactive status and they still practice law, it is considered a crime according to California Business and Professions Code Section 6126(b) BPC. This crime may result in being charged with a felony.
There are two related offenses to this crime: Practice of Law by a Non-Member of the California State Bar and Unauthorized Practice of Medicine.
Proving a Crime Occurred
In order to prove that the defendant practices law while inactive, they may show the following:
• The defendant was and involuntary inactive member of the California State Bar; they were suspended from their membership with the State Bar; they had been disbarred; or they had already resigned from the Bar and charges were pending.
• Additionally, the defendant either practiced or tried to practice law, advertised their law services, positioned themselves as a lawyer who was currently practicing, or showed that they could practice law at the time.
• Alternatively, the defendant was an involuntary inactive member of the California State Bar and they purposely practiced or tried to practice law, or they advertised that they could practice law, or showed that they were currently or entitled to practice law.
An example of this would be if a lawyer is suspended from the State Bar because they violated the rules of conduct several times and across various cases. Even though the attorney knows they are no longer allowed to practice law, they continue advertising their services and taking free consultations.
Defenses of the Crime
If the defendant did not realize that they had an involuntary inactive status with the State Bar and they continued to practice law or present themselves as an active attorney, they would not be considered guilty of the crime. For example, the attorney may send his dues to the California State Bar, but the Bar doesn’t receive the check, and the attorney technically misses the deadline. The Bar places the attorney on inactive status and lets them know about the change via mail. Between the time the deadline passes and the attorney receives the notice, he appears in court to represent his client. Once he receives the notice from the Bar, he stops practicing law and takes the steps necessary to pay the dues and go back to active status.
Also, since there is not a set definition of what “practicing” means in terms of law, the defense may use that gray area when showing that the attorney did not commit a crime. For example, if the inactive lawyer worked for another firm, it’s possible that their work did not technically involve practicing law.
Penalties for the Crime
A lawyer who engages in the practice of law while they are not an active member of the California State Bar can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. If the defendant is charged with a misdemeanor, the maximum sentence is one year in jail. If the defendant is charged with a felony, the maximum sentence is three years in prison.
If you or someone you know has been charged with practicing law while being an inactive member of the California State Bar, it’s necessary to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.