Illegal Practice of the Law
In California, there are self-help guides that allow individuals (or various entities) to represent themselves in a legal process. This is entirely legal and, for certain reasons, some may choose this route. In cases like these, it is incredibly clear that the person has no claim of being an active lawyer but wishes to present their own legal arguments. However, it is a criminal offense when a person pretends to be an authorized lawyer and practices the law. Such activity is a crime as incorrect legal advice can have dangerous consequences.
Elements of the Crime
According to the California Business and Professions Code, a practicing lawyer must be a member of the state bar or other institution of the state that confers such membership. It is not only illegal when a person practices the law without membership, but the person can also face criminal charges when they simply claim to be a member of said bar/institution. Therefore, when someone chooses to represent themselves in court, they do not do so with the belief that they are a practicing lawyer, as otherwise, their actions would fall under this criminal offense.
Penalties and Punishments
This offense can apply to individuals who have never been a member of any bar (in California, other states, or foreign countries) or have never even gone to law school, as well as lawyers who no longer hold active membership status or have been suspended. The suspension is a separate topic and can be incredibly complex for the suspended lawyer, but people who fall in this category can also face penalties under this offense if they continue to practice anyway. Depending on the context of the crime and the discretion of the prosecution, the accused individual can face a misdemeanor or a felony, with sentencing ranging from jail time to a prison sentence.