Under the law, paralegals are prohibited from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. Violating this prohibition can result in fines and imprisonment. It’s important that law firms who have paralegals on staff carefully monitor their activities so that they don’t fall afoul of the law. Allowing your paralegals to engage in the unauthorized practice of law could leave your firm vulnerable to legal trouble.
What Is the Practice of Law?
How the “practice of law” is defined is very vague. The Model Code defines the “practice of law” as “the educated ability to relate the general body and philosophy of law to a specific legal problem of a client.” In a nutshell, the practice of law is the ability of an attorney to give professional legal advice to a client that depends on their experience, skills, and education. This rule is in place so that laymen who have not studied the law do not give bad legal advice to unsuspecting people who ultimately pay a hefty price that could result in losing money, imprisonment or even the loss of their life.
Facts vs. Opinion
Paralegals are allowed to share facts with a client in their capacity of working for a law firm. So, they can inform a client of the date of a hearing or the next step in the legal process. But a paralegal cannot give an opinion. For example, a paralegal is prohibited from telling a client what they think their chances are of winning a case, and they are prohibited from formulating a legal strategy on behalf of the client. Only lawyers are authorized to give their educated opinion about a client’s chances of winning a case or give strategy tips. If a paralegal gives legal advice in the course of working for a legal firm, the firm could be vulnerable to a lawsuit if the client takes the advice and it harms them.
Drafting Legal Documents
Paralegals are allowed to draft legal documents but those documents must be reviewed by an attorney before they can be shared with anyone outside the law firm. If a lawyer has a good working relationship with their paralegal, allowing them to draft legal documents could save a tremendous amount of time. But the time saved is only valuable if the law takes the time to review those documents and make any necessary edits.
Paralegals are allowed to help clients fill out legal forms but there are some restrictions. A paralegal can enter into a legal form the information the client gives them but they cannot tell the client what to put in the form. This is very important because some paralegals may be tempted to share their knowledge about what should go into a form but doing so could mean that they’re engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
A paralegal is allowed to do some legal tasks as long as an attorney is carefully supervising their work. However, paralegals are never authorized to give legal advice to clients, set fees, or accept cases. They must also clearly indicate to the other party that they are not an attorney.