Every state, including Washington, has enacted laws to protect the public from the harm caused when an unqualified person provides legal services. Each state defines the practice of law and generally limits that practice to members of the state bar association. In Washington, a complex collage of case law, statutes, and a Supreme Court rule attempt to define the practice of law, identify when the practice of law by a nonlawyer is unauthorized, and determine when public policy considerations allow such nonlawyer practice.
Protecting immigrants from unauthorized practice of immigration law is a particular concern. People who claim to be qualified to help immigrants routinely victimize newcomers; others may assist in good faith. Either way, unauthorized legal representation can cause an immigrant to miss viable opportunities for protection, to be unnecessarily detained or deported, to incur penalties for filing false claims, and often to be tricked into spending thousands of dollars for such “assistance.” The Washington legislature has attempted to prevent such harms through its Immigration Services Fraud Prevention Act.
The line between authorized and unauthorized practice of law, especially in the immigration context, can be thick and blurry. New federal programs that allow community financial sponsorship of immigrants fleeing war and state collapse are unintentionally contributing to this grey area. The Biden administration has recently authorized Ukrainians and others to come to the United States temporarily, but only when supported by a U.S.-based financial sponsor. A U.S.-based individual initiates the process by applying to become a financial sponsor. Like all immigration documents, this sponsorship application form can be unclear, particularly for noncitizens. Submission of the form affects an applicant’s legal rights and its completion involves the exercise of legal discretion. Individuals seeking to become financial sponsors are turning to friends and other non-lawyers for help in completing these applications.
This article sheds light on the concern that a layperson’s help in completing a financial sponsor application form may represent the unauthorized practice of law in Washington, including the unauthorized provision of immigration-related services. An understanding of this issue is critical, as the Biden administration has expanded community financial sponsorship programs exponentially within the first nine months of their existence.
We conclude that a layperson who assists another in completing a financial sponsorship application form is engaged in the practice of law in Washington. A layperson’s assistance that goes beyond entering objective data or language translation likely triggers a violation of Washington’s civil and criminal unauthorized practice rules, as well as its Immigration Services Fraud Prevention Act.
Megan J. Ballard & Zaida C. Rivera, New Community Sponsorships for Humanitarian Immigrants: Guidance on Washington’s Practice of Law and Immigration Services Fraud Prevention Rules, 46 U.L. Rev. SUpra 15 (2023).