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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Unauthorized Practice of Law on Memphis Beat

I enjoy the TNT show Memphis Beat, about a singing cop (played by Jason Lee of My Name Is Earl) and an offbeat police department in Memphis. They don't usually get my lawyer hackles up too much, but the latest episode, Ten Little Mempians, had a howler of a mistake. A character in the show, an ex-con who graduated from law school, decided he wanted to represent his boyfriend who was being accused of a crime. He made the statement that, in Tennessee, there's a case which allows graduates of an accredited law school who are awaiting bar exam results to represent clients.

My shoe almost went through the TV screen. One of my pet peeves, a really lazy writing mistake, is having characters engage in the unauthorized practice of law. I knew that here in Florida there's no way an unlicensed attorney could represent anyone. So I checked Tennessee law and found their unauthorized practice of law statute, which says in pertinent part:

"No person shall engage in the'practice of law' or do 'law business' . . . unless such person has been duly licensed therefore."

Pretty darned clear. Lawyers have to be licensed. That means they have to pass the bar and a background check in their state. But I double-checked. I called the Tennessee Attorney General's Office and spoke to Colleen Doty, Assistant Attorney General. She works in the Consumer Protection Division handling Unauthorized Practice of Law, and she was kind enough to aid me in my quest to make shows watchable for lawyers. She confirmed that there is no such case allowing a law grad to practice law without a license. She also chuckled knowingly when I said I write about shows that get the legal stuff wrong: "You must have lots to write about."


How could the writers have fixed this glaring problem? How about having the boyfriend be a newbie lawyer? Just sworn in yesterday is better than never sworn at all. It was silly and irritating and really ticked me off.

Unauthorized practice of law is a crime. Every lawyer and law student knows this. TV shows and books that have law grads, friends, neighbors, family members representing a character in court or as a lawyer when they aren't a lawyer ought to also show that person getting cuffed and hauled off to jail. No judge or police officer in their right mind would allow an unlicensed person to represent a client.

Do Colleen Doty and me a favor so we don't have to fetch our sneakers out of a smoking, broken TV screen. Make sure your characters are lawyers before you have them practice law. Screw up and I'll sic the Tennessee Attorney General on you.

Do check out Memphis Beat though. I think you'll like it.


Bill said...

Don't you think it could have just been a bluff by a student trying to protect his boyfriend? Not too suprising that a cop wouldn't know the real law in a case like that. Much shoe flying over nothing if you ask me. I see much worse in other shows.

Donna said...

That's another way the writers could have gone - but didn't. I'm totally fed up with courtroom scenes where the friend says to the nervous defendant, "Don't worry, I'll represent you." It's amateurish writing - a dumb mistake. It's fine to show this happening as long as the writer lets us in on the bluff, but not if they try to pass it off as something that's okay.

Kevin Balkwill said...

As a regulatory lawyer in Tennessee, there is a way that law students can practice on a temporary basis while awaiting licensing after the bar. It does require the supervision of a licensed attorney and the Rule can be found within Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 7.