Under Colorado law, the unauthorized practice of law in Colorado occurs when a person advertises oneself or holds out oneself as an attorney licensed to practice law in the state, or actually does practice law, while not licensed as an active member of the Colorado State Bar.
The definition of “practicing law” is not clearly defined in Colorado, but a few examples help clarify what it means:
- representing another person or business in court proceedings;
- offering legal advice concerning a case;
- preparing legal documents that secure legal rights, even if the case will not go to “court” (for example, wills, trusts, contracts); or
- a paralegal who drafts legal documents without attorney supervision.
The Supreme Court of Colorado has created an Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee to deal with the unauthorized practice of law.
The committee issues injunctions, or orders that instruct a person to stop the unauthorized activities.
The committee is able to charge a person with contempt, which can lead to penalties including:
- a fine of $2,000 or more; and/or
- time spent in prison or jail.
Below, our Denver Colorado criminal defense lawyers discuss the following frequently asked questions about the unauthorized practice of law:
- 1. What is the unauthorized practice of law in Colorado?
- 2. What is the definition of “unauthorized practice of law”?
- 3. Who is in charge of enforcing these rules?
- 4. Can the committee issue an injunction under Colorado law?
- 5. Can the committee initiate contempt proceedings against me?
- 6. How can I defend myself against these charges?
1. What is the unauthorized practice of law in Colorado?
The unauthorized practice of law (UPL) happens in the State when an individual:
- advertises to the public or represents him or herself to be a lawyer licensed to practice law in Colorado; or
- actually engages in the practice of law
while not on active status with the Colorado State Bar or with special permission to practice by other law.
1.1 Is there a Colorado Bar Association rule concerning the unauthorized practice of law?
Under Colorado Bar Association Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 5.5, there are certain rules imposed upon attorneys and people who are not attorneys as well concerning the practice of law.
- a lawyer practicing where he or she is not authorized by law;
- a lawyer helping a non-lawyer to practice law;
- allowing a disbarred or suspended lawyer to remain in the firm name;
- permit non-lawyers to:
- represent clients;
- give legal advice;
- appear for depositions on behalf of a client; or
- engage in any other activity which meets the definition of the practice of law.
Lawyers who permit another to practice law illegally, or who themselves practice law in a way they are not allowed are subject to formal discipline by the Colorado Bar Association and the Colorado Supreme Court.
1.2 What constitutes advertising as an attorney?
A person who holds him or herself out to the public as a person authorized to practice law in Colorado can be found to violate the rules against the unlawful practice of law.
- Facebook ads or posts;
- TV or radio commercials;
- pamphlets; or
- verbal advertising.
If a person is not a member of the state’s bar (for example, not allowed to practice law within the state) but pretends to be a lawyer in the state via an advertisement, this may be sufficient as holding himself out to the public as an attorney.
2. What is the definition of “unauthorized practice of law”?
The definition of “practicing law” is not clearly defined in Colorado, but a few examples help provide an answer:
- representing an individual or business in court hearings;
- giving legal guidance about a case;
- creating legal documents that impact legal rights, even if the case will not go to “court” (for example, wills, trusts, contracts); or
- a paralegal or other non-lawyer helper who creates legal documents with no supervision by an attorney.
Any time a person not authorized by the Colorado Supreme Court participates in activities that could be considered the “practice of law,” he or she opens up the possibility of contempt proceedings in front of the State’s highest court.
2.1 What are some examples of when this can happen?
While the possibilities are endless, some common examples help illustrate how this issue commonly occurs:
Example: Harry graduated from law school and works as a law clerk but failed the Colorado bar exam on his first attempt. He is studying again hoping to still become a lawyer. In the meantime, he begins to answer legal questions for people over the internet pro se, despite not being a member of the Colorado Bar. Even though he is not going to court or preparing documents, he is still violating the rules.
Example: Sarah, a paralegal employee of a law firm, has been preparing wills, trusts, deeds for real estate, and other legal documents for years, and feels that she knows what she is doing (even better than her attorney boss). However, she prepares them without attorney supervision and signs her boss’s name on the documents. Sarah may not practice law in Colorado because she is not a licensed attorney (even if she did a perfect job while doing so and had a written agreement with her “clients”.)3
2.2 What happens when a licensed Colorado lawyer is on “inactive” status?
A lawyer must be on “active” status with the Colorado Supreme Court to be allowed to practice in his or her field. Attorneys may go “inactive” for a number of reasons, such as:
- failure to complete required educations courses;
- the lawyer chooses to be done with being a lawyer and does not keep up on his or credentials; or
- other viable reasons.
If a lawyer has an “inactive” status, he or she may not engage in activities that were formerly allowed when they were “active” and in good standing. 4
3. Who is in charge of enforcing these rules?
The Colorado Supreme Court has created an Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee to handle the issue of non-attorneys attempting to engage in legal activities.
It is composed of 9 members, 6 of whom are members of the Colorado Bar. The committee has the power to:
- inquire into conduct by suspected non-attorneys;
- receive and inquire into complaints filed by the public;
- recommend the issuance of injunctions against those engaged in impermissible legal activities; and
- recommend contempt proceedings against an alleged non-attorney who violates the Supreme Court’s rules.
The committee can create further rules to help govern its powers.
4. Can the committee issue an injunction under Colorado law?
Under Colorado Supreme Court rules, if the committee finds that a person has engaged in the unauthorized practice of law:
- it may recommend
- that an injunction proceeding be initiated
- by the People of the State of Colorado
- with the Supreme Court.5
An injunction is:
- a legal order from a court
- to stop participating in
- the impermissible activity at issue in the case.
4.1 How is an injunction hearing initiated?
If the committee decides an injunction is appropriate, the People of the State of Colorado must file a petition with the Colorado Supreme Court.
The petition must be in writing and contain:
- the facts and charges in plain language with specificity; and
- the “relief” requested (for example, injunction, refund, restitution, fines, costs, etc.).
The person charged has a chance to respond to the petition within 21 days of receiving it. The Supreme Court can then decide the case based on the documents, or if it believes it needs more facts it can hold a hearing.6
5. Can the committee initiate contempt proceedings against me?
A contempt proceeding occurs when the committee finds that:
- the unauthorized practice is so wrongful that punishment is appropriate, or
- a person was issued a civil injunction but has continued to participate in impermissible activities.7
The filing of contempt proceedings also requires a petition with the same or similar requirements as that for an injunction.
5.1 What are the possible penalties for contempt?
The Supreme Court can issue a “citation” for contempt against a person, which can result in:
- a fine of not less than $2,000 per incident (it could be more); and/or
- time in jail or prison.
These are serious penalties and can significantly affect a person’s life and possibly even his or her freedom.
6. How can I defend myself against these charges?
A person can defend him or herself against charges of the unauthorized practice of law in several ways:
- your actions did not meet the legal definition of practicing law;
- you did not realize you were on active status;
- you engaged in activities a licensed attorney told you that you could legally perform; and/or
- you were not aware that you were practicing law (not a complete defense).
Depending on your unique situation and the facts of your case, an appropriate defense can be tailored to fit your needs and protect your rights.
Call us for help…
For questions about the unauthorized practice of law or to confidentially discuss your case with one of our skilled Colorado criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact our law firm about our legal services. Our lawyers practice in United States district courts and state courts throughout Colorado.
We represent clients in and around Denver, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Fort Collins, Lakewood, and several nearby cities. For cases in California or Nevada, please see our pages on Business & Professions Code 6125 – unauthorized practice of law in California and NRS 7.285 – unauthorized practice of law in Nevada.
- American Bar Association (ABA)
- Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel
- Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct 5.5: Multijurisdictional Practice of Law
- Colorado Supreme Court: Unauthorized Practice of Law – Overview; see also People v. Shell (Colo. 2006) 148 P.3d 162, 167.
- Denver Bar Ass’n v. Public Util. Comm., 391 P.2d 467, 471 (Colo. 1964) (collecting authorities); see also Koscove v. Bolte, 30 P.3d 784, 786 (Colo.App. 2001), cert. granted (Aug. 20, 2001), cert. denied as improvidently granted (Feb. 15, 2002), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 1128 (2002).
- Avoiding the Unauthorized Practice of Law by Non-Lawyer Assistants, 32-MAR COLAW 27 (Dianne M. Keuck).
- CO ST RCP (C.R.C.P.) Rule 228.
- CO ST RCP Rule 234 (Colorado Rule on Civil Injunction Proceedings; General).
- CO ST RCP Rule 236 (Civil Injunction Proceedings; Report of Hearing Master; Objections).
- CO ST RCP Rule 238 (Contempt Proceedings; General).