American Lawyer Magazine recently did an article, That Law Firm’s Website Might Not Be for a Real Law Firm on “a new white paper [that] examines a growing trend of fraudsters posing as attorneys or legal consultants online to exploit those seeking legal services.” To which I can only say, well yeah.
To which I can only say, well yeah.
We actually first wrote about the fake lawyer phenomenon way back in 2006, in China: Where Even The “Law Firms” Are Fake (2006). In that post I talked about fake Chinese lawyers taking money from American companies for trademark registrations:
There are those who take money to file trademarks in China and then simply run away. A new client told me he had sent about $750 to what he thought was a legitimate China law firm to have his company’s brand name registered. As soon as the first $750 hit Shanghai, he was asked to send an additional $600 to “cover the filing fees,” which he did.
A week later the website was down and the Shanghai “firm” was gone.
It turns out this scam is actually pretty common and it also turns out that in every case of which I am aware the scammers were neither licensed Chinese lawyers nor licensed Chinese trademark agents. In other words, they are just people who run China trademark registration scams.
Since 2006 I have heard multiple accounts of foreign companies that paid for trademarks or employment contracts or manufacturing contracts or company registrations or various other things China lawyers typically do for their clients, only to receive nothing in return and only to learn that the “Chinese law firm” or the “Chinese lawyer” they paid for their legal work never even existed. How many foreign companies believe their trademarks are registered in China when in fact they never were? How many think they have registered companies in China when they don’t? I don’t know the numbers, but I do know that the number of these fake law firms is on the rise, fueled in large part by foreign companies seeking to reduce their costs wherever they can.
In addition to fake law firms that simply steal your money, there are also a whole host of companies with no lawyers who advertise their China legal services on the internet. These companies (at least as far as I know) do not flat out steal your money but what they do can in some cases be almost as harmful. These companies lead their clients to believe they are communicating with lawyers when in fact they are not. This means that there is no attorney-client privilege and that the odds of whoever does your legal work knowing your situation and your goals and having the capability to draft a cross-border document that will work for you are about 1,000 to 1. Be careful of these companies as well.
So how can you avoid these things happening to you? Do some due diligence before you pay/hire a China lawyer, especially if you will be paying upfront for something like a China trademark or a China company registration where it may take you years to realize that you have been had. There are, for instance, some fast and easy steps you can take to confirm that your lawyers actually have a law license. I believe every U.S. state lists its licensed practitioners online and avvo.com also lists all or nearly all licensed lawyers. Here is my proof on Avvo that I am a real lawyer, licensed in Alaska, Illinois, and Washington. Most countries have something similar. Check to see how long they claim to have been in business as compared to how long they have had their website. One fake China attorney claimed to have more than 20 years experience but his website appears to have been online for a total of only 5 months.
Anyway, just be careful out there.