Ethical Considerations Regarding Assisting the Public with Legal Issues
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP
Paralegals are often approached by members of the public about assisting them with legal matters. While paralegals should be clear that they cannot assist anyone with a legal matter except under the direct supevision of a licensed attorney, advising someone that you cannot assist with their legal matter does not provide the person with any answers. It is best if you can also offer alternative sources of assistance with their legal matters.
Many people cannot afford to hire an attorney and contact a paralegal hoping to get assistance without having to pay an attorney’s billable rate. Unscrupulous paralegals will take advantage of people who may be desperate, and who likely do not realize paralegals are not permitted to directly assist members of the public other than under attorney supervision. As members of the legal profession, we have a responsibility to educate the public that only a licensed attorney may to assist them with their legal matter. We also have an obligation to direct people to available resources for assistance with their legal issues.
For those who qualify, there are numerous legal aid organizations in Texas. The State Bar maintains a list of legal aid organizations and there are usually several in each county. The Lawyer Referral Information Service is available for 246 counties and offers referrals to an attorney who will meet with the person for 30 minutes for no more than $20.
The website TexasLawHelp.org provides free legal information and forms, as well as free assistance with legal matters. Although this site includes forms, non-attorneys may not assist members of the public with completing these forms, as that would be considered the unauthorized practice of law.
Another way to assist those who cannot afford to hire an attorney is to volunteer to assist attorneys in your firm with pro bono work, or to assist with other pro bono opportunities. Most local bar associations and paralegal associations have information on local pro bono opportunities. There are also opportunities available through Access to Justice . If you see an unmet need for a pro bono legal clinic in your area, the State Bar has a Care Kit to assist legal organizations with setting up legal clinics. The State Bar also offers training and other resources to support attorneys doing pro bono work.
To help promote awareness of pro bono activities, and encourage members of the Paralegal Division to volunteer with pro bono projects, the Paralegal Division has an Exceptional Pro Bono Award. Paralegals may also join the State Bar’s Pro Bono College .
If you become aware that someone is receiving assistance with a legal matter from a non-attorney, even if the non-attorney is only serving as a scrivener, you should make him or her aware that non-attorneys may not assist the public directly, but only under the direct supervision of a licensed attorney. You may also direct the person to contact the Supreme Court of Texas UPL Committee , which has an online form. If the person assisting them claims to be a paralegal, you can suggest they contact the Paralegal Division at firstname.lastname@example.org to determine if the paralegal is a member, as well as to receive referrals to other resources for making a complaint regarding the non-attorney.
Pursuant to the Paralegal Division Code of Conduct and Professional Responsibility, we have a duty to assist in the prevention of the unauthorized practice of law, as well as assist in the administration of justice and public service in cooperation with the legal profession.
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.
If you have any questions regarding any ethical issue, please contact the Professional Ethics Committee.
Originally published in the Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright 2018 by the Paralegal Division, State Bar of Texas.