Most paralegals spend much of their time corresponding with clients, via email and hard copy letters. Of course, properly identifying yourself as a paralegal in all correspondence is required, but paralegals should also carefully consider the contents of your correspondence.
If the correspondence is only a transmittal letter sending documents or other materials to a client there should not be any issues. Even if the transmittal letter includes instructions, such as to sign a document in the presence of a notary, or to review a deposition transcript, sign, and return the errata sheet, such standard correspondence is acceptable for a paralegal to send over the paralegal’s signature.
Sometimes the correspondence contains updates regarding the matter being handled for the client. While it is appropriate for a paralegal to send this type of correspondence to the client, it is strongly recommended that such correspondence be previously drafted and approved by the attorney. Not only does standardized correspondence reduce the risk of leaving out important points, it also reduces the likelihood that there will be a miscommunication due to different writing styles and other variables.
Client correspondence that includes instructions or recommendations in addition to matter updates should always be either standardized and approved by the attorney, or approved by the attorney each time this type of correspondence is sent. Although instructions and recommendations are not legal advice, clients will rely on this information for their future actions and therefore the attorney should approve the text of the correspondence.
Correspondence to clients forwarding agreements for the client to review and approve is sometimes a special situation. Before sending this type of client correspondence, paralegals should verify that the attorney has reviewed and approved the agreement. It is best if the attorney has previously discussed the agreement with the client but regardless, the correspondence should include a conspicuous statement that if the client has any questions or concerns regarding the agreement, he should contact the attorney.
If the correspondence includes legal advice, the correspondence should come directly from the attorney and not the paralegal. Although paralegals may draft correspondence including legal advice, paralegals should not sign such correspondence, even by permission. Even if the correspondence makes clear that the legal advice is coming from the attorney and not the paralegal, it is still inappropriate for a paralegal to sign such correspondence.
As stated above, the best way to minimize errors, misstatements, and misunderstandings is to use standardized language, drafted and approved by the attorney, for frequently used client communications. This will also increase paralegal, legal assistant, and attorney efficiency and productivity. Of course, any standardized language must be revised for the current matter. The next best option would be to have the attorney approve the correspondence before the paralegal sends it to the client.
While paralegals may handle much of the correspondence to clients, they must be sure it is proper for a paralegal to send that type of correspondence and seek attorney review and approval of correspondence when appropriate.
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.