Written by Tom Gordon
A Kentucky woman convicted of unauthorized practice of law will be appealing (subscription required) the $5,000 fine handed down by the Kentucky Supreme Court for her actions. Della Tarpinian operates what she describes as a scrivener service. Her customers, who need someone to prepare simple legal documents for them, fill out questionnaires which Tarpinian uses to complete fill-in-the-blank legal forms. Document preparation services are licensed and regulated in states such as California and Arizona, providing clear guidelines as to what services non-lawyers may provide. In other states, however, vague definitions of the practice of law leave the legality of these services in a gray area. As a result, consumers do not have the benefit of a robust marketplace providing document preparation services.
Tarpinian has been prosecuted for UPL once before. In 2004, a jury took 15 minutes to acquit her of UPL charges. However, her current conviction did not come as the result of a jury trial, but as the result of findings made by a special commissioner appointed by the Kentucky Supreme Court. However, one thing missing from both the opinion of the Supreme Court and the findings of the special commissioner is a finding that any consumers were harmed as a result of Tarpinian's services. We would venture that the jury in her 2004 case similarly failed to find that Tarpinian caused any harm to her customers, resulting in her rapid acquittal. Unfortunately, in the current case, the bar has made the assumption that provision by non-lawyers of services related to law is by its nature harmful to consumers. This assumption is clearly incorrect, as proven by Tarpinian and the hundreds of licensed document preparers in other states. Whatever the letter of the law may say about whether someone is engaging in UPL, prosecutors and bar associations should decline to bring charges without a showing of consumer harm. To do otherwise is a waste of prosecutorial resources, a miscarriage of justice, and a blow to consumers.
Tom Gordon is Executive Director of Responsive Law.