The Top Three Unauthorized Practice of Law Scenarios for Paralegals to Avoid

By Teri Cannon, Lawyer, Author, and Higher Education Consultant, Minerva Project

Below are three situations that i commonly see throughout the United States that may result in Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) investigations.

Unauthorized Practice of Law

  1. There are very experienced paralegals who have developed good relationships with their clients, and sometimes the clients will forget the limitations of what the paralegals can or cannot do, and the paralegals find themselves in a position where clients are asking them questions that would require them to give legal advice. All paralegals need to have a good radar when those questions start to come through and remind the clients they can’t answer that question without consulting with the supervising lawyers.
  2. While it’s not common, it is also not unusual for the following scenario to lead to a disciplinary action or lawsuit. Some firms throughout the U.S. try to figure out ways to practice law doing a high volume of legal practice with a lot of non-lawyers working under the supervision of not enough lawyers. A paralegal can find herself in a position as a regular matter of routine doing things that are Unlawful Practice of Law; i.e., evaluating client matters, accepting cases, signing clients up with a retainer agreement or engagement letter. In other words, doing everything on a case until a court appearance, when the lawyer meets the client for the first time. In these situations, there might be 15 non-lawyers for every lawyer, all of them providing some kind of service under the very attenuated supervision of a lawyer: not enough lawyers to provide adequate supervision. While some lawyers try to practice this way in order to offer inexpensive legal services, which is a good concept, in practice it’s very difficult for a lawyer to hire that many well-qualified people and then supervise them appropriately.
  3. There are lawyers who are really busy — usually in small law firms but it can happen anywhere – where the lawyer is in court or meetings all the time and by default the paralegals end up answering questions they shouldn’t because the lawyer is not available. Some lawyers abdicate responsibility, telling paralegals, “Just answer them. I’m busy and can’t do this, so just handle it.” I hear this a lot almost every time I talk to a group of paralegals.


About the author
Teri Cannon is a lawyer; author of Ethics and Professional Responsibility for Paralegals, Third Edition; and currently Chief Accreditation, Operations and Student Affairs Officer for Minerva Project.