How to File a Complaint Against a Non-Lawyer Who is Practicing Law
Iowans may suffer loss of money, property, or liberty as a result of the practice of law by persons who are not authorized to do so. To help prevent these losses and protect Iowa citizens, the Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law was established by the Supreme Court of Iowa. The Commission is charged with considering, investigating, and seeking the prohibition of the unauthorized practice of law.
Iowa’s court rules leave the determination of whether a person is practicing law to the Iowa Supreme Court. In Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law v. Sullins, ___ N.W.2d ___, ___ (Iowa 2017), the Iowa Supreme Court noted that it has not fashioned an all-inclusive definition of what constitutes the practice of law, but did say that it includes:
representing another before the courts; giving legal advice and counsel to other relating to their rights and obligations under the law; and preparation or approval of the use of legal instruments by which legal rights of others are either obtained, secured, or transferred even if such matters never become the subject of court proceedings.
(quoting Comm. on Prof’l Ethics & Conduct v. Baker, 492, N.W.2d 695, 701 Iowa 1992)). In Sullins, the court emphasized that the practice of law centers around the exercise of professional judgment and that when a person “engages in analysis of legal information, he or she practices law.” Id.
Common circumstances that may involve the unauthorized practice of law include:
- Non-lawyers performing legal services in Iowa
- Non-lawyers holding out to the public that they are qualified to provide legal services
- Licensed Iowa attorneys performing legal services in Iowa while their licenses are inactive, suspended, or revoked
- Lawyers from other states performing legal services in Iowa matters without authority to do so
Past decisions of the Court provide the following additional guidance:
- Drafting pleadings and advising others on what documents need to be filed in a case constitutes the unauthorized practice of law. Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law v. Sullins, ___ N.W.2d ___, ___ (Iowa 2017).
- Participation in the selection, preparation, and filing of bankruptcy forms goes beyond the role of a mere scrivener and constitutes unauthorized practice of law. Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law v. Sturgeon, 635 N.W.2d 679 (Iowa 2001).
- Negotiating a settlement on behalf of an injured party requires the exercise of professional judgment, and therefore is the practice of law. Bergantzel v. Mlynarik, 619 N.W.2d 309 (Iowa 2000).
- A collection agency that took assignments of unpaid accounts and then brought small claims actions pro se against the account debtors engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law v. A-1 Associates, LTD., 623 N.W.2d 803 (Iowa 2001).
- A corporation may not represent itself through non-lawyer employees, officers, or shareholders. Hawkeye Bank & Trust, Nat’l Ass’n v. Baugh, 463 N.W.2d 22, 25 (Iowa 1990).
- Certain services that may be performed by non-lawyers nonetheless are treated as the practice of law in Iowa when performed by lawyers, including consummation of real estate transactions, preparation of tax returns, legislative lobbying, and estate planning. Iowa R. Prof’l Conduct 32:5.7, cmt. 12.
- The actions the Court will consider the practice of law when performed by a suspended lawyer include but are not limited to “the examination of abstracts, consummation of real estate transactions, preparation of deeds, buy and sell agreements, contracts, wills and tax returns as well as any court appearance or counseling clients with regard to the same.” Committee on Prof’l Ethics & Conduct v. Toomey, 236 N.W.2d 39, 40 (Iowa 1975).
Complaints are confidential pursuant to Iowa Court Rule 38.8.
Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law
Judicial Branch Building
1111 East Court Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa 50319