(No, not that kind of community service.)
As members of our communities, we have an obligation to give back. Perhaps you volunteer with your child’s school, serve on the board of a non-profit, or devote your time and talents to other organizations in your community. Generally, those activities do not have the potential for conflicts of interest or the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). However, issues may arise if your fellow volunteers look to you for assistance with situations that, however remotely, are legal matters.
It is possible that in some circumstances you may be asked to serve on a committee or board primarily because of your legal training and experience. If that is the case, you may want to consider declining the position. If the group or organization has sought you out because you are a paralegal they will likely give your opinion on legal matters undue weight which may cause them to make decisions and take actions based on your statements. This may be the case even if you preface your statements with the reminder that you are not an attorney and are not providing legal advice.
Paralegals certainly may serve on community boards and committees and may recommend the board or committee seek legal counsel when appropriate. However, paralegals may not draft documents and should not review legal documents in any capacity other than as a member of the board or committee.
A paralegal recently contacted the Paralegal Division to inquire whether she could serve on her church’s board of directors. The church was taking steps to incorporate and she had been asked to serve on the founding board. Once she confirmed she is an active member of the church and was not recruited to serve on the board because she is a paralegal, we discussed ways she could help prevent the board from relying on her legal education and experience. For example, the church wanted to enter into a lease agreement. The paralegal found a few online forms and recommended the board consult an attorney regarding which one to use. She also was insisting that the entire board be involved in drafting the bylaws and related documents. The board was reviewing several examples of those documents and discussing together what types of provisions they would like to see included. The plan is that the board will take their draft to an attorney to have the documents reviewed and finalized prior to filing. We also discussed that she may occasionally need to remind her fellow board members that she is not wearing her paralegal hat during their meetings, especially if it appears they are looking to her for information regarding legal matters.
Becoming involved with committees and board is a wonderful way to give back to our communities, but paralegals should make every effort to distance themselves from any attempt by the board or committee to involve them in situations which may cause others to rely too heavily on their opinions regarding legal issues.
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Paralegal Division and a past president of the Division. She is a frequent speaker on paralegal ethics and intellectual property and the lead author of the Division’s Paralegal Ethics Handbook published by Thomson Reuters.