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Supreme Court probes attorney’s unauthorized practice of law

The Missouri Supreme Court is weighing what discipline is appropriate for a Clay County attorney who has admitted to practicing law in the state of Kansas for nearly two decades without a Kansas license.

On May 6, the court heard arguments in the case of Daniel Gonzalez Zarate, of Gladstone. Zarate has been a licensed attorney in Missouri since 1999.

Charles W. Gotschall represented the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. For 17 years, Zarate appeared as counsel of record in more than 1,100 municipal court cases in Kansas municipal courts while practicing without a Kansas license, Gotschall said.

Zarate admitted to that conduct in a joint stipulation, and to using a law school classmate’s bar number without his knowledge, Gotschall said. OCDC’s investigation was triggered by complaints from judges in Kansas, he said.

OCDC is asking the Supreme Court to disbar Zarate — a divergence from the disciplinary hearing panel’s recommendation  that Zarate be suspended for at least one year.

Gotschall said admission to practice law is not a mere formality for lawyers. He said it helps to both limit competition in the legal market and protect consumers.

“It’s not an empty formality. It’s required,” to have a license, he said. “I have one, and I’m honored to have one.”

Zarate was represented by James C. Morrow of Morrow Willnauer Church in Kansas City. Zarate is asking the court to place him on probation, or, at most, accept the panel’s suspension recommendation.

Morrow said Zarate “has never wavered in his admission of what he did, he has not offered excuses and he has been tremendously remorseful.”

He maintained that the court should consider his client’s character and other mitigating factors, saying Zarate frequently helped an underserved community of undocumented immigrants and wasn’t found to have taken advantage of vulnerable clients.

When in Kansas, Zarate practiced only in municipal courts, Morrow said, noting that those appearances tend to be more informal than proceedings in other courts.

“In Kansas municipal court, you don’t usually see the judge, you meet with the clerk, with the prosecutor,” he said. “You arrange a plea or diversion and pay your fine. That’s the end of that.”

Judge Zel M. Fischer questioned Morrow on that point.

“I don’t understand why the informality has anything to do with the unlicensed practice of law,” he said, giving the hypothetical that Zarate also could have informally advised clients on estate planning in Kansas. “It’s the unauthorized practice of law that matters.”

Morrow agreed, saying “He recognizes he was doing wrong.”

In rebuttal, Gotschall countered Zarate’s argument that no member of the bar has come forward to complain about Zarate’s conduct damaging the legal profession.

“I’m a member of the bar,” he said. “I’m telling you, the conduct has damaged the integrity of our profession.”

Also, the question of discipline in Zarate’s case isn’t whether his conduct is on the same plane as other discipline cases before the Missouri Supreme Court that resulted in suspension, Gotschall said.

“The question is, why was he on the plane in the first place, and why did he stay on it so long before he crashed?” he said.

The case is In re: Zarate, SC98337.