Attorney Reprimanded for Legal Aid to In-Laws

Professionals are often approached by friends and family for advice.   At times, the particular issue might not fall squarely within the professional’s area of expertise or may involve a matter outside of the jurisdiction in which they are licensed to practice.  Although the matter involves a seemingly trivial task, professionals cannot forego ethical standards simply because they happen to be close with the individual seeking assistance.

In a recent decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court took a Colorado attorney to task for the unauthorized practice of law.  The attorney was licensed to practice law in Colorado where he maintained an environmental and personal injury practice.  The attorney’s practice also included debt collection, which he had done for several years.

In 2014, the attorney was approached by his in-laws for assistance regarding a $2,368 judgment entered against them in Minnesota in favor of their condominium association.  The in-laws explained to the Colorado attorney that they had been harassed by an attorney for the condominium association, who was attempting to collect the debt.

The Colorado attorney sent an email to the association’s attorney in Minnesota informing the attorney that he would be representing the in-laws and to direct all future correspondence to him.  Thereafter, the attorneys exchanged approximately two dozen emails.  The Colorado attorney assumed that he was not required to hire local counsel if he could settle the matter without filing a lawsuit. The association’s attorney, however, asserted that the Colorado attorney’s emails constituted the unauthorized practice of law and filed an ethics complaint.

In addressing the ethics issue, the Minnesota Supreme Court noted that out-of-state attorneys may provide legal advice only on a temporary basis if the matter arises in a state in which the attorney is authorized to practice and the attorney reasonably expects to be admitted to practice in the particular proceeding as pro hac vice counsel.  The Court concluded that the attorney’s representation of his in-laws did not relate to his practice in Colorado and did not involve a body of uniform law, and that he was therefore engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.  Accordingly, the attorney was issued a reprimand.

Professionals must be cautious that in their attempt to help close friends and family, they do not unwittingly violate rules of professional conduct.  Even having a small role in handling simple matters out of state could be deemed the unauthorized practice of law, and lead to liability for counsel and jeopardize the client’s interests.