Commercial Division Blog

Posted: November 30, 2013 / Categories Commercial, Law Firms and Professional Ethics

Judiciary Law Section 478 Applies Only to Legal Services Provided in New York

On November 27, 2013, the Second Department issued a decision in Gover v. Savyon, 2013 NY Slip Op. 07934, interpreting Judiciary Law § 478 in a situation where an attorney who was not licensed to practice in New York provided legal services both in New York and in another jurisdiction.

In Gover, plaintiff, an Israeli attorney not licensed to practice in New York, sued defendant "to recover fees for legal services."  Defendant argued that the complaint should be dismissed because plaintiff "was barred under Judiciary Law § 478 from recovering fees for such services" because he was not licensed in New York. The trial court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment on this ground with respect to "legal services that the plaintiff undisputably rendered to the defendant in New York," but "otherwise denied the motion."

The Second Department affirmed, writing:

Judiciary Law § 478 makes it unlawful for anyone other than a person who has been admitted to practice law in New York and has taken the requisite oath, to practice as an attorney in this state. A contract to provide legal services rendered in violation of Judiciary Law § 478 is unenforceable as a matter of public policy. However, where an agreement consists in part of an unlawful objective and in part of lawful objectives, the court may sever the illegal aspects and enforce the legal ones, so long as the illegal aspects are incidental to the legal aspects and are not the main objective of the agreement.

. . . The legal services that the plaintiff provided to the defendant from outside of New York did not violate Judiciary Law § 478 and, thus, did not violate New York law. Furthermore, the main objective of the subject agreement, which was simply to provide legal services to the defendant, was not illegal. The defendant was aware, at all times, that the plaintiff was not licensed to practice law in New York, and the defendant would be unjustly enriched if allowed to avoid payment for legal services performed by the plaintiff for his benefit which were not in violation of Judiciary Law § 478.

(Internal quotations and citations omitted).

The real lesson here should go without saying--do not practice law where you are not licensed to do so.