Out of Massachusetts comes a disciplinary opinion illustrating (again) the multiple consequences that can come from the unauthorized practice of law. In this one, however, the twist is that two brothers were involved — and they apparently got away with their UPL for 18 years.

Practicing in the Ocean State

The two brothers were licensed only in Massachusetts — but they opened a law office in Providence, Rhode Island, which was run by one of the brother’s then-wife. She was licensed to practice in Rhode Island; but she worked only limited hours, owned only two percent of the firm, and did not have any supervisory authority over the brothers.

Seven years after they opened the Providence office, the brothers hired another Rhode Island-admitted lawyer; he had no cases of his own, and also lacked any supervisory authority.

The brothers made all the decisions on the firm’s cases, the court found, and did all the work on them — except for signing pleadings and filing appearances in court. They apparently delegated those functions to admitted lawyers, which is what might have allowed them to fly under the radar for so long.

Eventually, though, Rhode Island authorities caught up with the brothers, and they pleaded no contest to five criminal misdemeanors there, related to their UPL. The brothers agreed to cease practicing law in Rhode Island, and they were barred from maintaining an office there. Lesson #1: UPL is a criminal violation in many jurisdictions, as well as an ethical violation under state versions of Model Rule 5.5.

Although the firm website correctly stated that the brothers were licensed only in Massachusetts, the site featured images of the Providence skyline. Each brother’s web bio stated that he was “born and raised in Rhode Island.” (That should count for something, right?) Lesson #2: A website that shaves the corners will not help your cause in a UPL proceeding.

Discipline in the Bay State

The bar discipline opinion, though, comes from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, not from Rhode Island. So if the brothers were considering starting over in Massachusetts, where they were licensed, that hope was dashed — the Massachusetts court suspended them both from practice there. That’s in accord with Model Rule 8.5(a), which specifies disciplinary authority in the state of licensure and where the effect of the conduct is felt. Court rules in many jurisdictions likewise specify the ability to impose “reciprocal discipline” in response to disciplinary orders issued from outside the state. Lesson #3: Professional discipline can be imposed not only where the effect of your conduct is felt, but also by your state of licensure.

In fact, while the parties had stipulated to a two-year suspension with the entire period stayed on conditions, the Massachusetts court rejected the agreement as too lenient, and imposed an actual one-year suspension. Lesson #4: While parties in disciplinary cases can agree on recommended sanctions, the final arbiter is the court hearing the matter. A court can depart from the recommendation downwards — or upwards, as here.

Don’t let this happen to you

A cautionary tale to be sure. In support of its sanction, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court pointed to the length of the UPL, that the brothers were “well aware that they were not authorized to practice law in Rhode Island,” and that by doing everything but signing pleadings and appearances, and by failing to clearly advertise that they were unlicensed in the Ocean State, they intentionally created a system “designed to evade the rules of licensure.”