Until today, I had no idea that there are a handful of websites in existence that supposedly devote their resources to assisting individuals “clear off” their criminal records at a “more reasonable” or “reduced” rate. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as ultimately you can find pretty much any type of service being offered in this capitalistic society we live in. However, having just spoken to a new potential client who retained one of these non-lawyer “services” to assist him in “clearing off” his criminal record (he was given no specific advice as to what type of relief the service would be pursuing on his behalf, nor is he able to directly contact the company to ask), I was appalled to find out that essentially, the (unnamed) service at issue simply accepted his several hundred dollars in exchange for nothing, as this man simply doesn’t qualify for expungement or sealing relief in Illinois. (See previous blog entries for details on what is or is not eligible for expungement or sealing in Illinois.)
After speaking with this potential new client (ultimately, he needs to pursue a petition for executive clemency with authorization to expunge for his felony class 3 theft conviction) to discuss his options, I decided to look into the so-called “expungement companies” to see what they’re all about. Let me assure you I was less than impressed with the results. During my internet search, I first came across a website that purported to rank these various companies (see www.expungesite.com/services/services.htm). This website specifically referenced its “own rating system” without telling us what that system actually is and then, in a separate blog entry proceeded to slam the well-established Better Business Bureau (which, as an aside they didn’t even manage to spell correctly when referring to it as the “‘Beter’ Business Bureau”) as having a totally biased rating system (see http://news.expungesite.com/2010/07/beter-business-bureau.html). This obviously led me to correctly surmise that the BBB had less-than-positive reviews to report about these types of companies. (See, for example, BBB reviews of Records Removal Services; American Pardon Services a/k/a Canadian Pardon Services; Clear My Record.com a/k/a Expungement Assistant Service, Removeit.org, New Beginnings, etc.)
The bottom line is that none of these services is able to give proper legal advice, as customers simply aren’t dealing with licensed attorneys. In Illinois, only a licensed attorney is able to give another person legal advice. (See Rule 5.5 of the 2010 Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct). There is a reason that after receiving my college degree I spent three difficult years in law school, had to take a two-day bar exam to become licensed as an attorney in Illinois, and am required to take no less than thirty (30) hours of Continuing Legal Education courses every two years. While of course it would be appealing, especially to an individual likely having difficult obtaining or keeping a job because of his/her criminal record, to pay less for relief from one’s criminal record, ultimately there seems to be some truth in the saying “you get what you pay for”. Personally, as an ethical attorney who is truly dedicated to the best interests of my clients, I keep my professional fees as low as possible and always offer flexible payment plans for my services. Ultimately, however, it is my professional opinion that no one should ever allow a “forms preparation service” or other untrained professional attempt to evade the Illinois state law prohibiting anyone not licensed by our state bar from giving legal advice to “handle” this sensitive and increasingly more important issue in our society – seeking relief from one’s criminal record.