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State Bar of Georgia

Georgia Bar Journal
December 2023, Vol. 29, No. 3

Protecting Georgians from UPL, Runners and “Super Runners”

The State Bar of Georgia has focused on ensuring the public was adequately protected from persons engaging in the practice of law without the required education, training, experience, professional certification and authority to do so.

In 2003, the Supreme Court of Georgia approved extensive changes to the State Bar’s Unlicensed Practice of Law (UPL) Program, creating a statewide Standing Committee and 10 District Committees representing each of the judicial districts in Georgia. Members of all UPL committees are confirmed and appointed directly by the Supreme Court of Georgia and are comprised of lawyer and non-lawyer members, the latter of whom must make up a majority of each committee.

The committees are charged with the consideration of complaints received, processed and thoroughly investigated by the UPL Department staff. The Standing Committee additionally considers requests for advisory opinions.

Since the program’s initial launch in 2003, the UPL Department has initiated and conducted more than 2,500 formal investigations. These have resulted in the voluntary execution of more than 600 cease-and desist-affidavits, as well as the filing and litigating by UPL counsel of more than 65 injunctive relief (or contempt) actions in the superior courts of Georgia. Given the scope of this problem, however, our efforts must be better, particularly considering how important this work is and what it means to our mission. We, therefore, are revamping our processes and have made it a priority to ensure all elements of the program are in order, and that our outputs are being produced. As of the Fall Meeting of the Board of Governors, 124 investigations have been opened so far this year. These investigations and this preliminary review involve subjects ranging from disbarred, suspended or out-of-state attorneys to paralegals and other non-attorneys alleged to have engaged in UPL.

When the formal part of an investigation is closed, on average, half will result in subjects agreeing to comply, while most all others will be referred for prosecution. A registry of individuals who have either been permanently enjoined from engaging in the practice of law by court order or have voluntarily executed a cease-and desist-affidavit within the last two years can be found on the Bar’s website.

A welcome development in a peculiar element of the UPL space is the Supreme Court of Georgia’s recently issued Rule 103 (effective Jan. 1, 2024), which sets out a path for provisional admission to the practice of law in Georgia for military spouses who are lawyers in other states. According to UPL Department Director Steven J. Kaczkowski, “That isn’t a wholesale change to the law, but if it happens to apply to you, I would imagine it is a significant and welcome development.”

Also in recent years, there has been an evolution when it comes to another sector of UPL enforcement, which deals with so-called “runners,” or people who solicit clients on behalf of attorneys, primarily for personal injury and motor vehicle collision lawsuits—stereotypically arriving at hospitals shortly after ambulances to approach victims and/or family members. Our UPL Committee continues to hear from attorneys throughout the state about the challenges that runners pose to the practice of law, and we have made it a priority to improve our processes for the benefit of the citizens of Georgia.

“When the UPL program first started,” Kaczkowski said, “it was not uncommon for a runner to illegally misidentify themselves as an attorney. That is UPL, and we investigated and prosecuted it as such.  But after a while the runners seemed to catch on that they didn’t necessarily need to untruthfully introduce themselves as attorneys (or otherwise need to engage in UPL) in order to get paid for procuring clients.”

Now, according to Kaczkowski, the typical runner uses a largely untraceable “burner” phone. “When they contact an accident victim, they don’t say they are an attorney, and they don’t claim to be tied to a particular law office,” he said. “Instead, they present as being concerned about the victim’s well-being and future legal representation. They speak in urgent generalities and, when their pitch works, the accident victim ends up being represented by an attorney—who pays the runner a fee for the referral.”

Of course, there are rules against that. The associated attorney’s conduct violates the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (GRPC). Those cases are disciplinary and thus brought against the attorney by the Office of the General Counsel. “It’s an issue of improper solicitation,” said Kaczkowski, “with the ‘but for’ element provided by the attorney. The activity would not happen if the attorney did not pay the runner for the cases, and the GRPC makes the offense complete upon the attorney making that payment.”

Kaczkowski also reports the advent of what one might call the “super runner.” These, he said are non-lawyers who establish a law office, obtain the clients and work the cases—usually personal injury. They know that they need to have an attorney associated with the operation in order to give it a veneer of legality, but the runner makes it clear to that attorney that it is they—not the attorney—who run the law office.

The runner who has established this sort of operation has effectively tied the attorney to the office in terms of public image, but has prevented the attorney from being able to exercise any independent professional judgment related to the legal work that goes on in that office. “Why would an attorney consent to such an arrangement?” Kaczkowski said. “Greed. Drive by the office once a week, sign some documents and pick up your 10% cut of the revenue. It’s easy money. Almost all lawyers care about being ethical, doing a good job for their clients and obeying the law. But there are those who don’t care about any of that, or at least not enough to stop them from partnering with a super runner.”

This sort of super runner operation violates the UPL statute and likely others, according to Kaczkowski. “It is imperative that these operations be combatted wherever they are found and with all available prosecutorial resources. When one thinks of the structure of this operation, it’s easy to see how it exploits those who might not be fully conversant with the nuances of the legal system, our society or the English language.”

To that end, the DeKalb County Solicitor-General’s Office is to be commended for its current prosecution of two alleged super runners, with a jury trial currently set for late January.

“Most offenders will stop when they find out they are breaking the law or find it likely that they’ll run into trouble for doing so,” Kaczkowski said. “But there is a certain sort of rapacious person that can only be stopped by confining them to a prison cell. When we encounter a situation like that, we will work with the authorities to make it happen.”

The work of the Unlicensed Practice of Law Department is a vital component of the State Bar’s effort to protect all Georgians and the integrity of the legal profession and our justice system. It is a major part of our work. We are committed to spending the next few months ensuring that the UPL Department is working as it is designed and to exploring how to make it better so we don’t lose focus or momentum. For more information about the department’s work or to be considered for service on a district or standing committee, please contact the UPL Department at 404-527-8717 or email stevek@streamlistapp.com.