Sometimes I feel like a lecturing parent, telling people that before hiring a lawyer they should check references, ask lots of questions, and check the person’s state bar membership. That’s particularly true in the immigration law setting, where a vulnerable population and lack of oversight (or interest) from law enforcement has led to all manner of scams and ripoffs.
But then a news report like this one recently out of Tampa comes along. (And further solidifies Florida’s status as the source of the weirdest news stories.) Roberta Guedes apparently went to law school, but then failed to pass the bar exam (a requirement before a lawyer is licensed to legally practice).
That slowed her down hardly at all. According to her guilty plea, she posed as a licensed attorney (using a former classmate’s name and Florida Bar number), took on clients (whom she met in her swank office space in Rivergate Tower), and attempted to handle clients’ family law and immigration matters. She even appeared in court on their behalf.
The end result for Ms. Guedes was being prosecuted for mail fraud and aggravated identity theft, and having to refund clients’ fee payments. The end result for her clients is probably far worse. Botched legal arguments? Deportation? Missed opportunities to pursue a remedy they deserved? We’ll have to use our imagination, since news reports aren’t going to divulge that sort of private information.
So, back to my lecture. A fancy office and a judge who allows someone into the courtroom are not proof that someone is a lawyer. As eager as you might be to move forward with your legal matter, some double checking is in order.
Fortunately, if you use a lawyer directory service like Nolo’s, it will check the lawyer’s bar number and disciplinary record. However, the truly sinister thing in this case is that the bar search would have come up clean. Ms. Guedes was using her classmate’s name.