Dear Reader: The following is an article written by Ellen Lockwood that originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of the TPJ. I have received many
inquiries recently on issues related to attorney signatures and felt that we could all benefit from revisiting Ellen's article.
Laurie Borksi, Professional Ethics Committee Chair
The Ethics of Using an Attorney Signature Stamp
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP
I was recently asked whether it is allowable for a paralegal to stamp particular documents, including those filed with the court, using an attorney signature stamp. The stamp is a rubber stamp of the attorney’s signature, rather than a stamp of just the attorney’s name.
At first glance it would appear this is an easy way to get documents out the door when the attorney isn’t available to sign. Get the attorney’s approval, then just stamp it with his signature.
Unfortunately, using an attorney signature stamp is the same as signing a document “dictated but not read.” Using an attorney stamp on letters that don’t include legal advice and for some administrative matters is probably fine; using an attorney stamp on engagement letters, settlement offers and documents, correspondence including legal advice, and particularly court documents, is not appropriate.
I was unable to locate any Texas ethics opinions on this issue. I also only found two Texas cases, both from the Court of Criminal Appeals. In State of Texas v. Shelton, (830 S.W.2d 605, Tex. Crim. App. 1992), the court found that use of a signature stamp on the notice of appeal by the Travis County Attorney was “ineffective to show personal authorization” and did not “comply with the legislatively mandated ‘guarantee that the only person permitted by statute to make an appeal on behalf of the State actually participated in the process.’” This opinion was upheld in State of Texas v. Roberts, 940 S.W.2d 655, Tex. Crim. App. 1996).
Although these are criminal cases, the logical assumption is that it is never correct to use an attorney signature stamp on a pleading, settlement agreement, or other official document, even if the attorney instructs you to do so.
I also found a bankruptcy case from Illinois that also addressed this issue. In this case the court held that the signature of an attorney on a document implies that the attorney has come to a professional judgment about the case.
As these cases illustrate, an attorney’s signature indicates he has reviewed the document and is confirming its contents or his agreement to its contents. This is imperative for the majority of documents an attorney signs. Most attorneys only send out letters that are “dictated but not read” in rare instances, and then only for correspondence that does not include legal advice or agreements.
The issue of using an attorney signature stamp is related to the issue of a paralegal signing by permission, which is not allowed on pleadings and other court documents (Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 57). Another attorney may sign by permission but the difference is that it is an attorney who is signing and there is a presumption that the attorney is qualified to act on the client’s behalf, even if not actually representing the client.
One way to get an attorney’s signature on a document that is not yet finalized but is approved is to put the signature block on a separate page and have the attorney sign before he leaves the office. You can then make the final corrections and still get the document mailed or filed.
The general rules for signatures on documents are as follows:
- Correspondence from paralegal—paralegal may sign as long as her title is clearly indicated and the letter does not contain legal advice or agreements.
- Correspondence from attorney—paralegal may sign by permission as long as her title is clearly indicated and the letter doesn’t contain legal advice or agreements.
- Correspondence from attorney—attorney may sign “dictated but not read” or with a signature stamp at his discretion, but it is advisable not to do so on correspondence containing legal advice or agreements.
- Correspondence from attorney containing legal advice or agreements—attorney should sign or another attorney may sign by permission.
- Documents to be filed with the court (including agreements between counsel) and pleadings—attorney should sign or another attorney may sign with permission.
If you have any doubt if it is appropriate to use an attorney’s signature stamp, insist that the attorney sign the document himself. It is always safer, and never incorrect, to have an attorney’s actual signature.
Ellen Lockwood, CLAS, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Legal Assistants Division, a position she has held since 1997. She is Treasurer of LAD and a past president of the Alamo Area Professional Legal Assistants in San Antonio.
If you have any questions regarding any ethical issue, please contact the Professional Ethics Committee.
Originally published in the Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright 2006 by the Paralegal Division, State Bar of Texas.