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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Where Are We Going?

I regret that I have been absent for a few days, Reader, but I am sure you will forgive me when you discover my reason. I was enjoying beautiful (and I do mean beautiful) Huntsville, Alabama this weekend with my boyfriend-the-lawyer. We enjoyed a long walk through an almost hidden park before bumping right into downtown Huntsville. We admired the mod-style courthouse in the middle of town befor exploring the local law offices. If only you could have seen it! We peeked into one window to an office that looked as if it had just stepped out of the 1960's. Dark wood, a grandfather clock, even a coat rack that should have been holding Don Draper's hat. I wanted to melt into the scene and be whisked away to a different time. As you can tell, my wish did not come true. Instead, I ended up back home in the southern part of the state, and four days gone on the blogging.

But even while away on my weekend mini-vacation, paralegal issues found me. First, if you have not checked out The Empowered Paralegal blog, by Robert E. Mongue, please do so now. Right now. Specifically, read this one about independent paralegals. Mr. Mongue received a letter from the owner of an independent paralegal business in Colorado regarding his business and how he avoids UPL. However, the description of this business, one which directly serves pro se litigants by assisting them in the process of representing themselves, gave me great pause.

My first thought was that a paralegal should be working under the supervision of a licensed and practicing attorney. Period. Then I took away the term paralegal and added in some generic term like project assistant. Then I started confusing myself. It is a given that you can represent yourself in a court of law if you so choose. You can draft and file documents and negotiate on your own behalf, if you so choose. What if you are a busy 8-5er and you need someone to assist you with the execution of your tasks? What if you will not ask this person for legal advice, nor will you expect them to use independent legal judgment - you just want them to help get everything typed up and filed? Is that person committing UPL?

My boyfriend-the-lawyer's answer was an unequivocal YES. His stance is that anyone who provides services of a legal nature without the supervision of a licensed practicing attorney is committing UPL. I certainly understand where he is coming from, and I agree. But not completely. California, for one, seems completely fine with allowing non-attorneys to help the general public with preparing and filing their legal documents. If you go to the website for the National Association of Legal Document Preparers, you will find a host of valuable information regarding this niche that several states seem intent on expanding for non-attorney practice.

I was quite surprised to read from their website that in 1993, the ABA actually commissioned a panel on non-lawyer practice, though their report never made it to the House of Delegates. From what I can gather, the report would have suggested regulating certain non-lawyer practices in order to provide less expensive access to justice for those who cannot afford attorneys.

Now, I know what lawyers will say about this. And I know how I, a fair-minded paralegal who does not wish to provide attorney-type services directly to the public, feel about it. If you keep pushing this issue into all fifty states, if lawyers eventually become merely the fine dining option when pursuing one's legal goals, wouldn't the license eventually become irrelevant, and then what would all those law school grads do with their expensive educations?

I jest, but I do agree with my boyfriend-the-lawyer (and not just because he takes me to see awesomely-bad chick flicks). There has to be a clearly defined line of UPL, and that line cannot keep being pushed further and further back until all the lawyers are confined to a tiny corner where they push and fight over expensive legal fees. The fact that the public, some non-attorneys, and even a few lawyers think that it is a good idea to regulate and allow non-attorney legal services directly to the public says at least one thing to me: lawyers have become too expensive for the common man. I think it also says that law firms value their own services more than their prospective clients do. When people are willing to forego the licensed professional for the regulated document preparer, it's time to rethink the status quo. Hey attorneys, do you hear me? It's your jobs and futures we're talking about here. It appears the paralegals will be just fine.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Melissa. As usual you raise some good questions. There is a tension between the need to provide legal services at an affordable cost and the legal profession's desire to monopolize the legal field. If the latter is going to continue, the profession must find a way to acheive the former. My research into legal systems in other countries indicate that lawyers continue to flourish even when others are not excluded.

    I believe that paralegals are the answer to this problem. The question is how we protect the public while providing that answer. One way is to insist upon supervision by an attorney who has a license to protect. Another is through regulation. You are correct that the legal profession must ultimately deal with the fact that, "When people are willing to forego the licensed professional for the regulated document preparer, it's time to rethink the status quo."

    One concern I have is that public may become confused by the existence of both supervised and "independent" paralegals. If "independents" are allowed, they must be regulated for the protection of the public (not the protection of lawyers) and should probably be required to call themselves something other than "paralegals."