What is a lawyer?

What is a lawyerMichael Cremin was a man who presented himself to the outside world as a “Lawyer and Advocate”. He had a professional profile on the web site of Cotswold Barristers Chambers, along with his photograph.

Cremin was neither a barrister nor a solicitor and indeed had no legal qualifications to speak of. He was able to use the vague titles of lawyer and advocate to defraud a terminally ill woman out of her life savings.

The facts were depressingly simple. The victim, Sandra Burch, approached Michael Cremin for legal advice in relation to a properly transaction. She had been given just 18 months to live following a diagnosis of cancer and wanted to find a more comfortable property to live in.

Under his false title and apparently telling her that as a paralegal he had some legal experience of such transactions, he said he could use her £92,000 savings to complete the purchase on her behalf.

He kept the money for himself.

Additionally, Cremin also duped several other unsuspecting members of the public and reportedly used the money to acquire a fleet of 14 cars worth over £300,000. He was jailed for eight years at Bristol Crown Court after being convicted of six counts of fraud and one of pretending to be a barrister.

I come across very many people who describe themselves as “lawyers”, and most of them are barristers, solicitors and chartered legal executives, preferring to use the title “lawyer” instead of or as well as the professional qualification. Context of course is everything and it can be very convenient to call yourself a property lawyer, or a commercial lawyer or, like me, a regulatory lawyer. We do it in the knowledge that we are actually qualified and regulated. The problem highlighted by Cremin is that the title “Lawyer” can be claimed by someone who has no qualifications at all and used for criminal purposes.

It also demonstrates for legal firms how important it is that people appearing on web sites and notepaper are who they purport to be.

If nothing else Cremin should make the public more cautious about exactly who they instruct. The public associates the title with someone who is qualified, and therein lies a problem. “Lawyer” has been adopted over recent years because very many find the title solicitor or barrister a bit old-fashioned or stuffy. It carries with it perhaps the suggestion that the person claiming it is a bit more modern and go-ahead. At a recent legal conference I attended one speaker said that the title solicitor was no longer fit for purpose because it was outdated. Yes, really!

However, the problem is that the public don’t know this and cannot easily distinguish the standing of the person advising them.

At a time when the SRA wants to “Uberise” the legal market through the freelance solicitor, protecting the public remains paramount. The SRA apparently wants to make it easier for solicitors to provide reserved legal services on a freelance basis to the public. Of course there will be safeguards in place one hopes, but it presents opportunities to the unscrupulous. There are web sites aplenty offering the court services of McKenzie Friends as an alternative to barristers and solicitors in court. I have seen Linkedin profiles from people calling themselves “advocates”.

Anyone can call themselves a McKenzie Friend, a lawyer or an advocate with relative freedom.

Cremin should make us think just a little about the use of the title, and not so quick to regard solicitor, or barrister or legal executive as too unfashionable.

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