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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.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

"Paralegal" Wins Against Summary Judgment, But Will He Succeed In Trial?

The Daily Inter Lake, a Montana newspaper, is reporting that a self-named independent paralegal has prevailed against the attorney general's summary judgment motion, which stated that his advertising had been "deceptive as a matter of law." Of course, while the judge may agree that the case needs hearing, paralegal Jerry O'Neil is more cautious than optimistic. The newspaper quotes him as saying, “He indicated my ads were not deceptive, but that was the only motion before him.” If the case makes it all the way to trial, Mr. O'Neil, a former state senator, seems to face charges of unauthorized practice of law and deceptive advertising.

A few things interest me about this case. First, apparently Mr. O'Neil enlists the help of attorneys for his document preparation, paying them to review his completed documents before filing them for his clients. Second, the judge himself noted that the Montana Legal Services uses non-attorney volunteers to perform many of the same functions that O'Neil says he performs, and that the volunteer-prepared documents do not even receive the benefit of attorney review.

The judge has pointed out a major discrepancy in Montana's system, it appears. If Mr. O'Neil is having attorneys review his work, it should be assumed that such work is higher in quality than documents which do not get the benefit of attorney review.

I will also note that my office works in the same basic fashion, except that I do not pay the Boss for his review of my work. Still, I draft a Will based on a form the client has filled out, he reviews it, most of the time it needs no alterations, and then we deliver it to the client.

Another point of interest is that Mr. O'Neil had legal trouble with his "independent paralegal" practice in the past and had since changed his advertising to conform to previous injunctions. The judge in his current case is quoted as saying, "O’Neil claims he has complied with the permanent injunction and is not violating MCPA, as he is not providing services that only a lawyer can perform and is now [sic] working under the auspices of an attorney.”

Of course, I am not going to opine whether Mr. O'Neil is guilty of UPL or violating any other law in the state of Montana. I am not familiar with Montana's UPL laws. Neither am I familiar with the Montana Unfair Trade and Consumer Protection Act. However, I will suggest that if he is performing services with the benefit of attorney review which are the same services non-attorney volunteers perform without attorney review, it would seem unfair to both him and his consumers to deem his work the unauthorized practice of law.

[Editor's Note 1/31/2010: Further investigation into Mr. O'Neil's situation, aided by a reading of Practical Paralegalism's story on the topic, led me to the 2006 Montana Supreme Court opinion in an earlier case regarding Mr. O'Neil and the unauthorized practice of law. It can be found here. It may be noted that in the earlier case, the court described Mr. O'Neal as having readily admitted to "drafting pleadings for his customers, providing them with legal advice and appearing in court with his customers," actions the court (and probably any sensible person) deemed to be the practice of law. Still, the facts of the new case seem distinguishable to some extent from the earlier case, so it should be interesting.)

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