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From the President

Bar ushers in new era of public protection with fraud prevention, outreach efforts

By Patrick M. Kelly
President, State Bar of California

Patrick KellyWe often think of the bar as an entity that solely deals with admissions and discipline. However, as I have noted in my previous president's pages, we are doing many more things such as admissions reform, enhancing MCLE, attorney education and urging attorneys toward civility. However this month I want to bring you up to date on an exciting new aspect of the bar – reaching beyond our traditional role and truly meeting our core mission of public protection and improving access to the courts. These public outreach initiatives include immigrant protection, protection from those engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, working with law enforcement and community outreach.

Immigrant protection

When numerous consumers fell prey to loan modification scams perpetrated during the housing crisis, the State Bar fought the problem by disciplining the lawyers involved and steering victims to the Client Security Fund to get their money back when possible.

But if the State Bar had been more proactive in its approach to the problem, might we have seen fewer victims in the first place? I believe so. That’s why the bar’s recent legislative efforts to prevent fraud on the immigrant community, combined with increased public outreach, are absolutely vital to our public protection mission.

We know from our work with partner law enforcement agencies that immigrants are already being targeted by scammers who take their money and do little to help them gain legal status. Such fraud will only increase if Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform. Without question, the vast majority of immigration law practitioners are superb lawyers who provide quality representation to their clients. Only a small percentage of practitioners, both lawyers and non-lawyers, are likely to threaten to cause harm to those clients that are seeking immigration reform services. Tragically, a small number of practitioners have the potential of harming a large number of clients, given the sophistication of advertising schemes today.

For that reason we are strongly supporting legislation pending at the state level to immediately assist in helping to protect the vulnerable community that would be seeking assistance under comprehensive immigration reform.

The legislation, AB 1159, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, would place reasonable requirements on both lawyers and non-lawyers, preventing them from demanding and taking money now for services that cannot be provided until the federal government has acted.

Fighting the unauthorized practice of law

We at the bar have identified that there is an increasing number of non-lawyers who are representing themselves to be attorneys. Not only is this false advertising, it misleads consumers to believe they are obtaining the services of a skilled attorney, when in fact they are not. Sadly, with the many issues our district attorneys and law enforcement have to deal with, there are insufficient resources to meaningfully attack this serious problem. For that reason, we at the bar have addressed this challenge by supporting AB 888, authored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, which would allow the State Bar to bring civil actions for fines and penalties against those engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

In addition to this legislative effort, the State Bar staff has been building relationships with outside groups that share our public protection mission in order to educate consumers on how to avoid being victimized.

Participation with law enforcement and the Department of Consumer Affairs

Over the past year, the State Bar has participated in a series of summits with various law enforcement agencies to share information about problems that have come to the forefront. Topics have included bankruptcy fraud, immigration fraud and the unauthorized practice of law. The bar participated in the California Consumer Affairs Association’s annual convention, making important connections with consumer protection agencies throughout the state. We have also established relationships with the foreign embassy and consulate community so we can work in partnership with them to educate immigrants who may be reluctant to contact government agencies.

Community outreach

As I noted above, one important aspect of public protection is trying to identify and alert the public to potential problems they may face that brings them into contact with the legal system. One such area is consumer fraud. The bar is currently planning a series of local town hall type meetings in conjunction with local, state and federal elected officials to alert our citizens to consumer fraud. These programs are currently in the planning stage, and we expect to have our first meetings in the fall of this year.

I am proud of the State Bar’s efforts to become more proactive rather than reactive and take a leadership role in preventing fraud. This is truly a paradigm shift and the beginning of a new age of public outreach and protection by the State Bar.