Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fake Lawyers, Charlatans and Ne'er-do-Wells

When I first started law practice, I was approached by a woman who wanted my opinion on her divorce. She was asked to sign off on a no fault divorce where she would relinquish any claims towards alimony, the marital home, her husband's pension or the couple's bank account.  The woman had a meager income.  Her husband made a good living as an engineer. By signing the document, she would have basically left with the clothes on her back after a particularly arduous thirty year marriage.  "Should I sign it?"  she asked.  "Are you nuts! Absolutely not".

The wife informed me that her miserly husband had hired a "notariusz" 
in order to save a few bucks.  The "notariusz had advised the woman to sign the agreement so that he wouldn't have to deal with the stress of going to court.   "Notariusz? Do you mean lawyer?" I asked. "I think he's a lawyer.  He had a briefcase and wore a tie.

With a little digging I discovered that a "notariusz" was the equivalent of an attorney in Poland.  This particular "notariusz" was not a licensed attorney.  He was simply a Notary Public who had played up the similarity in the two terms.  The notary had charged the husband a lawyer's fee to prepare his case.  I began thinking of what it took for me to get my law license.  The years of study, the Socratic method, and the bar exam flashed before my eyes.  Here was an individual who simply declared herself to be a lawyer.  No fuss.  No mess.  I was furious.  

As most people know, a notary serves as an impartial witness in taking acknowledgments, administering oaths affirmations and performing other acts authorized by state law. A notary is not an attorney and is not licensed to practice law, may not give legal advice, draft legal documents nor accept fees for legal advice.  This guy wasn't a lawyer.  He was a fake.    
Where is Your Stamp?
I had previously touched upon this issue on this blog.  It even lead to some news coverage.  Nevertheless, the problem continues.  It lies in the term notary.  In many countries a notario is a licensed lawyer. In Poland, for example, the notariusz is an accredited attorney. Many non-lawyers refer to themselves as notarios to prey on immigrants with limited English skills and little understanding of the American legal system. Many illegally practice immigration law without a license. They are able to take advantage of the fact that the English term notary, the Spanish term notario or the Polish term notariusz are similar in spelling, but very different in meaning.  

The term was so ingrained in my Eastern European client base that they often asked me why I didn't have a stamp. I would always answer matter-of-factly, "I don't need a stamp, I am an attorney."  Coming from former Communist countries, any paperwork of importance needed some sort of stamped seal of approval.  The fancier the seal, the more important the document. Eventually, I got fed up with the question.  I ordered a custom made stamp with my name and juris number.  "Sure you have a stamp,
but this other notary has a gold stamp.  His stamp is more important. "  I began contemplating ordering a custom made ring and wax seal.   Other attorneys must of thought I was full of myself.  Does this guy actually think he is a Baron?  What's with the fancy seal?

I began observing that many notaries were working out of travel agencies in ethnic neighborhoods.  One street in Hartford had a multitude of travel agencies in the span of a few blocks. Were this many people going on vacation? It surprised me a little that people would approach a travel agency with important legal work. For example, why would you go to a travel agent to do your immigration papers?  I wouldn't go to my attorney to book a cruise.  Note to self, 
start booking cruises.

Notaries cannot give legal advice about immigration status, getting a work permit, getting family to the United States, or getting the right to stay in the United States. They cannot tell you what forms to use or what answers to put on the forms. Also, some notarios falsely claim that they have a close and special relationship with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and can obtain special immigration favors for their clients or know of secret immigration laws. Notarios often charge excessive fees for their services and mishandle or even lose important immigration documents. Many charge hundreds or thousands of dollars merely to process immigration applications. In many cases, these scam artists charge high fees for filing unnecessary documents, perform poor quality services that jeopardize clients’ cases, and then disappear after receiving payment for their “services.” Their fraudulent practices put immigrants at risk because they lack real knowledge of immigration law. They charge fees to prepare applications for nonexistent immigration programs, or for existing programs for which the client does not qualify. 

If you feel you have been cheated by a notary, contact a lawyer, the bar or even the state attorney's office.  If not for you, do it for me.  Law school was tough and my school loans are through the roof.  If you have important legal work, always seek the advice of a bona fide, honest-to-goodness, real attorney.   


Anonymous said...

It's hard enough to fine a competent attorney!

Anonymous said...

This is obviously a big problem here in Texas as well, with a large immigrant population. It's actually illegal for a notary to refer to himself as a "notario"...not that it stops them.

Chris said...

There are indeed many people who will make illicit ways just to earn money. Even lawyers have been victimized by them.

IRS Tax Attorney

form 2290 said...

The scammers are everywhere, that's why you should pick the services you use.