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A law penalizing people for illegally practicing law in California was given more teeth Wednesday through a bill signed by Gov. Gray Davis. “When we have unscrupulous legal advisers cheating vulnerable and unsuspecting consumers of their hard-earned money, it represents a gross violation of public trust,” said Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who sponsored the legislation. “This law sends a strong message that if you violate the public’s trust, then you will feel the full brunt of the law.” The current law states that a person who isn’t a member of the State Bar but “who practices law or holds himself or herself out as practicing or entitled to practice law” is guilty of a misdemeanor. The greatest penalty possible before was six months in jail, but with the new bill the same violation is punishable by up to one year in a county jail, or a $1,000 fine, or both. The bill also provides for stiffer punishment of people who receive a subsequent conviction. “We wanted to make sure to get [people] out of the repeat business of pretending to be a lawyer,” said Karen Nobumoto, State Bar president. The bar was the chief proponent of the bill. Nobumoto said the new law protects the state’s immigrant population — which has been disparately affected by people pretending to be lawyers. “This practice especially hurt the Asian and Latino communities, who speak English as a second language. It’s a big step towards helping our immigrant communities not be taken advantage of.” Romero agreed. “Many of these victims are seniors or immigrants,” she said. “They save their hard-earned cash just to obtain legal consultation to ensure that their legal needs are processed diligently and correctly.” The bill also closes a loophole in the current law that allowed former lawyers who lost their bar membership to receive lighter punishment for illegally practicing. Under the new law, people who had once practiced law legally but then been stripped of their bar card will receive the same punishment as those who never practiced.

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