California Bar Journal
spacer.gif (810 bytes)


spacer.gif (810 bytes)
The battle against UPL
spacer.gif (810 bytes)
spacer.gif (810 bytes)

The unauthorized practice of law (UPL) is a scourge on the Chinese-American community. One example: a woman comes to the United States after enduring countless hardships in China, including a forced sterilization. She is lured into an unlicensed “legal services” office and guaranteed a green card for $5,000. She gives them her life savings plus several hundred dollars borrowed from friends. But the green card never comes. She is now broke and facing deportation to China.

Kenneth T. FongThis type of story is increasingly common. The Chinese-American population is one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in California, and this means thousands of new victims for unscrupulous UPL providers.

The UPL problem is exacerbated by fraudulent advertisements in Chinese newspapers and the Chinese yellow pages. These ads are deceptive because they guarantee results, feature impeccably dressed professionals standing next to well-known politicians, and contain official sounding titles such as “former INS officer,” which implies that these businesses have special connections with the federal government.

Some of these ads also display the name and bar number of an actual attorney. But the truth is that these attorneys never practice in that office and the nonlawyer who actually runs the office pays the lawyer to use his or her name. Such an arrangement violates State Bar ethical rules which prohibit fee splitting between a lawyer and a non-lawyer.

All types of unlicensed law are practiced, but the greatest amount of fraud takes place in the area of immigration.

Part of this problem dates to the passage of the California Immigration Consultants Act in the early 1980s. This act created a class of “immigration consultants” whose role was supposed to be ministerial and non-legal: helping file certain immigration forms for clients. But many of these consultants moved beyond the scope of the act and illicitly began providing legal advice.

Today, UPL is out of control in many ethnic communities, and law enforcement agencies are frustrated by a number of factors, including language barriers and lack of resources.

Because no single line of offense can successfully stop UPL, the following multi-pronged attack is needed:

1. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, the Los Angeles city attorney’s office and code enforcement teams in smaller cities must step up their prosecution of UPL abusers.

2. The penalties, both criminal and civil, for violating the laws that apply to UPL must be increased. For example, the civil penalties imposed by the California Immigration Consultants Act for illegally practicing immigration law cannot exceed $10,000.

Although $10,000 may seem like a lot of money, such fines are a drop in the bucket for successful UPL practitioners who can make hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit.

3. Bar associations and other groups must raise funds to support private civil suits brought against UPL businesses.

4. The State Bar must clamp down on attorneys who sell their names, bar numbers and photographs to UPL businesses.

5. The Chinese media must help educate the public on the dangers of UPL. The appropriate enforcement agencies must also send letters to the publishers of Chinese newspapers and phone directories asking them to refuse ads from UPL businesses.

The Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association (SCCLA) has formed a special committee to help on all these fronts.

SCCLA also is working closely with Assembly-woman Gloria Romero, who in December of last year organized a dynamic UPL community forum that brought together representatives of prosecuting agencies, legal services organizations and bar associations.

This year, Assemblywoman Romero is sponsoring AB 1858 that would: 1) require attorneys to place their State Bar number on all printed advertisements and on their business cards, and 2) increase the maximum penalty for violation of the Immigration Consultants Act from $10,000 to $100,000.

The cancer could and will spread to other communities. Let’s stop it now.

Kenneth T. Fong, partner in the Los Angeles office of Barbosa Garcia LLP, just served as president of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association. He may be reached at