reports in Group Alleges Document Prep Service Provides Legal Advice by Nonlawyers (9/24/03) that the Texas “Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee filed suit on Sept. 17 against a California-based company, alleging that it operates a document preparation service which provides legal advice by nonlawyers.” In brief, the Texas state bar is taking action against the company We the People, alleging that the company’s service of helping consumer fill-out legal forms constitutes the unauthorized practice of law.

This may sound familiar too readers who keep track of UPL actions. Several years ago Texas tried to ban self-help publisher Nolo in a UPL action. After a public outcry, the Texas legislature intervened to change the law and make clear UPL did not apply to publishers of self help books. See a summary of what happened on Nolo’s site.

As I pointed out in my posting Online Legal Services for Consumers of 12 June 2003, large law firms that offer online legal services to their clients probably do not have to be concerned about UPL statutes. Where a service is delivered in the context of an attorney-client relationship, especially if in-house counsel is involved, it’s not clear the UPL statutes apply. (Disclaimer: I am not providing a legal opinion in saying this. This is merely my understanding from talking to several lawyers over the years about this issue.)

On a personal and editorial note, I find this Texas action disturbing. On the facts, it is not obvious to me that helping a consumer fill in the form can be considered practice. Even if it is, it appears to me a simple case of lawyers erecting an artificial barrier to entry against non-lawyers. When state bars focus their energy on lower cost alternatives than seeing a lawyer without a demonstration of actual harm while at the same time ignoring the incompetents in their own rank, it cannot but help smack of self-interested protectionism.