Is Your Lawyer the Real Deal? Consequences for faking a law degree

If you watch the legal drama Suits you would be familiar with the plight of Mike Ross, a college dropout who lands a job working alongside infamous New York lawyer Harvey Specter, despite never having received a law degree.

But while you might think that Mike’s story belongs squarely in the realm of fiction, a ‘real-life’ Suits scenario has recently come to light.

It was reveal less than two weeks ago that a ‘lawyer’ who has been practising in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the last 10 years has never held a law degree or any legal qualifications – instead crafting a wide range of credentials by forging various documents and a law licence.

Kimberly Kitchen worked for a small law firm known as BMZ Law, specialising in estate law. Her defence lawyer told the media that she had helped more than 30 clients over the course of her career, and had even served as President of her local Bar Association. In April last year, Ms Kitchener was made a partner of her firm.

But despite her illustrious career, things didn’t quite add up, and in December 2014 the state began investigating her.

Before long, her story began unravelling: it emerged that she had never attended law school – nor had she ever sat the bar exam.

Her employers were caught off-guard, pointing-out that Ms Kitchen had deceived other law firms prior to joining them. As soon as the investigation commenced, the firm began reviewing her work, while Kitchener stopped working.

She was later charged with forgery, unauthorised practice of law and felony record tampering.

If found guilty, Ms Kitchener faces a possible prison sentence.

Australian Woman Imprisoned for Pretending to be a Lawyer

While Ms Kitchener’s case might seem astonishing, an Australian woman was imprisoned just last year in similar circumstances.

34-year-old Lisa Marie Burch was working with prominent Innocence Project campaigner John Button when she began soliciting funds from clients, claiming that the money was required to lodge court documents and pay for private investigators. The total amount that she obtained through her fraudulent dealings was nearly $70,000.

In a separate incident in 2012, Ms Burch obtained more than $34,000 from clients after telling them that she was a lawyer specialising in the field of family law.

It was revealed in court that she had prior convictions for fraud, and she was ultimately sentenced to over three years in prison.

Law Student Acting as Lawyer

Late last year, one overzealous law student was fined $1000 and ordered to pay a further $1083.50 to the Legal Services Commission after he was found to have held himself out to be a lawyer on six separate occasions.

At the time of his offending, 20-year-old Jacob Reichman was working as a clerk for Gold Coast criminal barrister Christopher Rosser. However, he attended court matters for his own clients, claiming to be a lawyer employed with another firm.

All was revealed when Mr Rosser advised the court that Reichman was in fact his clerk.

Regulation of the legal profession

Law is one of the most heavily regulated professions, and lawyers are bound by numerous laws and rules, including the Legal Profession Act, the Legal Profession Regulation, and Solicitors’ and Barristers’ Rules.

Breach of any of these rules can result in disciplinary action against the lawyer in question – and in cases of professional misconduct, a lawyer may even be ‘struck off’ from the roll, meaning that they will be unable to practise law again.

Of course, members of the public who hold themselves out to be lawyers despite never having attained legal qualifications are not subject to professional rules.

These people will generally be prosecuted for fraud under the general criminal law.

For a person to be convicted of fraud, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they acted deceptively or dishonestly and, in doing so, obtained a financial advantage or property from another person, or caused that person to suffer a financial disadvantage.

It must also be proved that they acted intentionally or recklessly.

While cases such as those discussed above are few and far between, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, and you can easily determine whether your lawyer is legitimate by checking with your state’s Law Society.

How Can I Check Whether My Lawyer is Legitimate?

The Law Society maintains a list of all legal practitioners who hold a current practising certificate. You can search the list here on their website.

The search will also show you how long your lawyer has been practising, which is important as unfortunately some unscrupulous lawyers have been known to claim that they have been practising for longer than they actually have been.

It will also show whether your lawyer is an ‘Accredited Specialist’; which is the Law Society’s certification of experience and expertise in a particular field of law.

Accredited Criminal Law Specialists, for example, will have at least 5 years of experience in criminal law and will have undergone and passed a rigorous examination process. They must also undertake extra legal training every year to maintain their specialist accreditation. They are therefore recognised as the leaders in the particular field of law.

We at Sydney Criminal Lawyers have two Accredited Criminal Law Specialists within our team, each of whom has been continuously accredited for a full decade. Every one of our Senior Criminal Lawyers has at least 5 years of specialist criminal defence experience as a lawyer – a level of experience and expertise that no other criminal defence firm in NSW can offer.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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