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Bogus nonlawyer firms targeting young lawyers via Craigslist ads

Managing Editor Regular News

Bogus nonlawyer firms targeting young lawyers via Craigslist ads

Mark D. Killian

Managing Editor

Careful! That job lead you found on Craigslist from firms looking for part-time coverage attorneys to help in foreclosure matters may just land you in hot water.

A number of nonlawyer entities in South Florida are posing as law firms and offering young, inexperienced lawyers jobs involving loan modifications, short sales, and other foreclosure-related rescue services on behalf of distressed homeowners, said Will Spillias, the Bar’s UPL counsel in Tallahassee. Spillias said the Bar has identified a number of unsuspecting young lawyers who thought they were signing up for part-time work and suddenly — and without their consent — found themselves as attorney of record in hundreds of cases or listed with the state as corporate directors for multiple entities.

“They hold themselves out as law firms and then rope in these attorneys to give a face to these groups of nonattorneys so they look legitimate; then they rope in their customers,” Spillias said.

The bogus nonlawyer firms generate income by soliciting advance attorneys’ fees from distressed homeowners for foreclosure defense work, said Shanell Schuyler, director of the Bar’s Attorney Consumer Assistance Program.

“There is no question that economic factors and stiff job market competition have fueled the success of these nonlawyer entities and their scams on consumers and our members,” Schuyler said. “However, taking a job with one of these nonlawyer entities may subject the lawyer to discipline. Lawyers need to be vigilant when it comes to compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct.” 

It is a violation of Bar rules to directly or indirectly divide fees with a nonlawyer or assist in the unauthorized practice of law by:

• Providing legal services for a distressed homeowner while employed as in-house counsel for a nonlawyer company;

• Forming a company with a nonlawyer to perform foreclosure-related services if any of the services are the practice of law; or

• Assisting a nonlawyer individual or company in providing services that the individual or company is not authorized to provide or are otherwise illegal.

A Bar Ethics Alert titled “Providing Legal Services to Distressed Homeowners” can be found on the Bar’s website.

Spillias said often young lawyers interview after answering a Craigslist ad, get hired on the spot, and then get signed on as a “contract attorney.” Suddenly these lawyers end up as the attorney of record for dozen of cases for clients they have never met.

“We really want the young lawyers who use social media to look for work to be aware that these nonlawyer entities are out there preying on attorneys,” Spillias said.

Spillias said young lawyers can protect themselves by being aware of their surroundings while interviewing for jobs and picking up on little things, like the lack of diplomas on the walls or asking simple questions such as inquiring about malpractice insurance or to speak to one of the alleged firm’s other attorneys if things don’t feel quite right. It is good advice for anyone interviewing to work for a law firm to check and confirm that the individual or individuals that they met during the interview are licensed to practice law, he said.

“Be careful how you apply for jobs and make sure you know who you are applying to work for,” Spillias said. “Because if any applicant does his/her due diligence, they will realize that none of the people they met were lawyers.”

It’s not only young lawyers who need to take care. Spillias said the Bar knows of one “seasoned attorney” who was offered marketing and a support service contract and suddenly found the company he engaged with sending emails under his signature block and affixing his name as the attorney of record in a number of cases. That lawyer is now working to withdraw from those cases at great expense to his law firm, Spillias said.

What should you do if you find yourself involved with one of these bogus firms?

“Run and then report it to the Bar,” Spillias said. “It is really sad to see what is happening to these young attorneys.”

Spillias said the Bar continues to monitor the situation.

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