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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.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

More On Independent Paralegals

I hate to beat a dead horse, to return to the question of independent paralegals and whether it is possible to walk that tightrope between serving an attorney and committing UPL - but here I am, doing just that.

My friend Professor Mongue at The Empowered Paralegal Blog, shared quite an interesting letter from an independent paralegal today. I encourage you to take a moment to read his entry and the letter he supplied, which can be found here, before continuing reading my thoughts on the subject. (It should open in a new window.) Go on. Read it. My words will be here when you get back.

Now that you are thoroughly informed, at least as informed as you can be at this point, you know that a self-proclaimed independent paralegal is currently being investigated for UPL. While we could argue the pros and cons of independent paralegals until we're blue in the face, I am more interested in one or two issues this letter brought up.

1) First, it seems that the complaint for UPL was filed, not by a dissatisfied or misled customer, not by someone who felt taken advantage of, but rather by a lawyer. Now, I have no qualms with someone doing what he feels is necessary to protect or defend the legitimacy of his profession or field. I just find it interesting that the only person who has enough of a problem with Mr. Martin's independent paralegal practice to file a complaint against him alleging UPL is a lawyer. This reminds me of some of the information I found regarding nonattorney practice in California when I first began researching independent paralegals. In that post, found here, I mentioned the apparent success of some independent paralegal (or rather, legal document assistant) companies. My limited reading and research found that at least customers are at least as satisfied, if not more so, with these businesses as with licensed attorneys when using them for situations in which they are not in need of legal advice.

2) If we take the letter at its face, Mr. Martin believes he is providing a necessary service to those who could not otherwise afford it. He does not sound like an incompetent attorney impersonator trying to pull the wool over an unwitting public's eyes.

3) Think about what Mr. Martin says about fear in the legal profession. Whether I agree with his stance regarding independent practice or not, I have a hard time rebutting his allegations of fear of UPL. It's the scarlet letter no one wants to wear. One mistake, one wrong word, and BAM, you've committed UPL. And whether you are even guilty of committing it is irrelevant. Once a complaint is filed, no matter what the verdict, your reputation can be blemished. I understand that UPL is an attorney issue too, but the lines are in different places. The problem for paralegals, as I've said before, is that the UPL line is to some extent subjective. We all know those things that MUST NOT BE DONE. But there are some things that may be unsafe to do, not because we are worried about the client's welfare, but rather because we are worried about the perception of some unnamed person who might wrongly construe our actions as the practice of law (as Mr. Martin seems to think happened in his situation). For instance, in some courts paralegals can sit with their attorneys at the table. In others, paralegals are restricted to the public seating, presumably to avoid appearing to the public that they are acting as a representative of the client.

4) Mr. Martin hits on an important question: Should it really be necessary for someone to pay a lawyer to assist him in such common sense instances as signing his name in a specific spot? Does telling someone to write his debts in this column labeled "debts" really take a graduate degree and a license to practice law? Should that really be construed as legal advice? The people who need such assistance rarely can afford an attorney, and this is a dilemma. I'm not saying tat the answer is limited non-attorney assistance; I'm just saying that if we discount limited non-attorney assistance, we have to do a better job of finding a real answer to better serve those who need it.

It is not my job or within my limited area of expertise to give a solid opinion of Mr. Martin's letter and all the points he raises. I chose here to write about the points of interest to me, the specific areas I find curious, the statements that made the cogs in my brain start turning. If you have comments, feel free to leave them here, or even better, return to Professor Mongue's blog to contribute your opinion. We all learn best when we enter into a dialogue and share our thoughts.

I am wishing Mr. Martin luck in all his endeavors. As for myself, I am glad I have a Boss to depend on.

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