A few years ago, a PD member contacted me stating that her attorney was representing a client in Justice of the Peace court. They had received a pleading from the opposing party, a corporation, which had been signed by a paralegal who worked in-house for the corporation. The PD member was unsure how she should address the obvious issue of UPL with the paralegal.
Surprisingly, it turned out that the paralegal had not committed an ethics violation by signing the pleading. Pursuant to Texas Government Code § 27.031(d), a corporation is not required to be represented by an attorney in JP court. Texas Government Code § 28.003(e), regarding small claims court, includes the same statement.
Although the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure apply to justice courts, they also state that there may be an exception where specifically provided by law or rules. It would appear that the section of the Texas Government Code cited above makes that exception.
Further research did not locate any local rules regarding this situation or any other rule or statue that requires a non-attorney representing a corporation in JP or small claims courts to be an officer of the corporation. Therefore, if a paralegal who signs a pleading on behalf of a corporation appearing in justice court is, in fact, an employee of the corporation, such an action would appear to be within the scope of the statute.
We may assume the legislators were anticipating an officer of a corporation would be representing a corporation in justice or small claims court, not a staff member, and certainly not a paralegal. While I could not find any rule or statute prohibiting a paralegal employee from representing her employer in justice and small claims court, it is not advisable.
While a paralegal may represent a corporation in justice and small claims court, the other restrictions for paralegals in Texas still apply. There are serious issues regarding the ethics of a paralegal representing a corporation in small claims or justice court. The primary issue is that a corporation may rely too much on the paralegal’s legal training and experience which could cause the paralegal to commit UPL by giving legal advice to the corporation. If there is a paralegal employed by the corporation, then there is either in-house counsel or outside counsel who could represent the corporation, or an officer or director could handle that duty, seeking guidance from counsel.
Although it appears the paralegal who signed the pleading for the corporation appearing in JP court did not commit UPL by doing so, and despite the statutes permitting such representation in justice and small claims court, it is not advisable for paralegals to take on representation of corporations. Paralegals asked to do so should decline and suggest an officer of the corporation handle the matter.
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.