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“My silences had not protected me.
Your silence will not protect you.”
~ Audre Lorde
By: Jamie Collins
For starters, I believe 99% of paralegals are ethical people, who do their jobs with integrity, and do it well. Many of us embrace the traditional attorney-paralegal work relationship for attorneys and firms. Others choose to branch out and work responsibly as freelance or contract paralegals who work for multiple attorneys and/or firms. This post is in no way aimed at all freelance paralegals or others with non-lawyer designations, such as LLLTs (Limited License Legal Technicians), LDPs (Legal Document Preparers) or LDAs (Legal Document Assistants), or those working in a limited capacity in a specific area in the few states where that is allowed. I know many of you, am friends with several of you. You are ethical. You work for attorneys. You run high-caliber, ethical businesses and are incredibly mindful of the way you project yourself, and your paralegal business, publicly. You are not the problem.
Aside from the aforementioned 99%, the remaining (incredibly loosely estimated) 1% of paralegals, it seems, may consist of some shifty folks who tend to straddle the ethical lines. I write this post today as a rallying cry to ALL paralegals across the United States. I’m talking to every paralegal reading this post who gives a damn about the profession and our reputation as “paralegals.”
I’m here today to speak to the majority about that 1% of paralegals (hereinafter referred to as “Rogue Paralegals”) about their conduct, which is not only unconscionable, but unethical, likely illegal, and completely unbecoming of an individual who holds himself or herself out as being “a paralegal.” You know why? Because I am a paralegal, and so are the other 99%. We love who we are and what it is we do for a living. We don’t want to be affiliated with your unethical nonsense, nor do we want to ignore it for one more day.
Let’s begin with the definition of “a paralegal.” The ABA defines it as follows:
“A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically designated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
(Emphasis supplied). Please pay close attention to the two spots above where it sets forth the types of individuals for whom paralegals work: Lawyers. Lawyers working at law firms. Lawyers working at companies and corporations. Lawyers working at governmental agencies. And lastly, lawyers who work for other entities. The gist is that we, as “paralegals,” are to be working under the direct supervision of LAWYERS. I hope that point isn’t lost on anyone. Again, paralegals work for LAWYERS, also known as “attorneys.” And the work they perform is “legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” At the end of the day, it is the lawyer’s work the paralegal is performing, under the lawyer’s supervision, at the behest of the lawyer, who may be paying the paralegal under a traditional model or under a freelancer model on an hourly or by project basis, but either way, the paralegal is working for an attorney; you know, the person SUPERVISING the paralegal. (If the horse ain’t dead yet, give me a few more paragraphs and grab the spurs. It. Is. On.)
There are a handful of Rogue Paralegals out there, on social media, whom we all see advertising their services to members of the general public online, disclosing fees on their websites to members of the general public (Read: not to attorneys or lawyers), targeting members of the general public (not attorneys or lawyers) with their ads to tout that they are, “cheaper than lawyers,” (because they are not lawyers), and promulgating their title as a “paralegal” to somehow falsely perpetuate their standing outside of the legal community to infer to members of the general public that said Rogue Paralegal is almost like an attorney, sort of like an attorney, could be like an attorney, works in legal and must know what he’s doing, used to work for an attorney or has loads of legal experience, owns his or her own business now, but costs a whole lot less than an attorney. The point is, these Rogue Paralegals are seeking out members of the general public as their own clients (without non-lawyer designations in the few states where those are allowed and in those limited capacity roles), without the interaction with or supervision of an attorney. Let me be clear: This. Is. Wrong.
It’s just wrong.
It’s not a gray area. It’s not a blurry line. It’s not even a close call as to whether or not this type of thing is okay or acceptable for regular paralegals. It’s not. What these types are doing is unethical. And in nearly every state (I’m barely qualifying that, because pretty much what I’m saying is almost always, with rare exception), this solicitation of members of the general public for a paralegal to land his/her own clients rises to the level of UPL (Unauthorized Practice of Law). I know the 99% of you reading this already know exactly what UPL is, but I’ll spell it out a bit more clearly for that handful of pesky Rogue Paralegals among us who don’t seem to comprehend what that is: it’s UPL. Those dang tricky letters. When you, as a paralegal, do legal work without the supervision of an attorney for a member of the general public (do not hold a non-lawyer designation of some type, in a state where that is actually allowed) and there is no attorney involved in the work being performed for said client, even from twelve football fields away, that likely constitutes UPL.
Hear me loud and clear when I say this: If you are a paralegal working in the United States of America, your work MUST be supervised by an attorney. There are few exceptions to this. If you are a LLLT, LDP or LDA working in the states of California, Arizona, or Washington, then perhaps you can do general data entry work for clients (yes, members of the general public) or assume other administrative roles, fill in pre-approved, standardized templates, or represent clients before specific governmental agencies in a limited capacity, as your non-lawyer legal designation allows (there may be a few more specific exceptions, but NOT many). However, as an LLLT, LDP or LDA, you are doing this type of work in your capacity as an LLLT, LDP or LDA – NOT within the scope of your role as “a paralegal.” A distinction must be noted. In other words, you are a paralegal who also happens to be a LLLT, LDP or LDA. That designation is what allows you to do this type of work for members of the general public. It is the non-lawyer designation that gets you around the supervisory requirement. And it bears mentioning that the vast majority of states do not allow non-lawyer designations at the present time.
There are some Rogue Paralegals across the nation who appear to be setting and/or negotiating fees with “clients,” (as in regular members of the general public) and performing the work for those “clients” without the direct or indirect involvement or supervision of an attorney. (Remember, the attorney supervisor? We didn’t think so.) Can we prove it? Not necessarily. But that appears to be exactly what they are doing. You’ll see these folks advertising to members of the general public on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or elsewhere, and listing fees for their “paralegal” legal services to clients (as in non-lawyers) on their websites. (Note: I didn’t say fees for attorneys who may hire or contract said paralegal for legal work; that’s different). A paralegal soliciting legal services to members of the general public in their capacity as a paralegal is not only unethical; it is illegal. You don’t have to look real far to figure that out.
I don’t care if they offer to pay you under the table. I don’t care if they swear they just need a standard template that you happen to know as well as your first born child. I also don’t care if you do that type of work all the time. That doesn’t make it ethical. Don’t fall into the trap.
Allow me to simplify my point with a short four question quiz:
As a “paralegal” (not in the capacity of a LLLT, LDP, LDA):
- Do you perform work without the supervision (even from afar) of an attorney?
- Do you offer legal services to members of the general public?
- Do you advertise to members of the general public?
- Do you set or negotiate fees with members of the general public for legal work that you, as a paralegal, will perform without the involvement of an attorney?
If you answered YES to any of these questions—or good lawd help us all, “yes,” to all of them—you may be conducting yourself under the Rogue Paralegal Model. (That just became a legitimate term, people, because I just made it one. That’s why. That’s the RPM and pretty darn appropriate for those fast and slippery folks driving themselves into unethical territory and taking our reputations right along with them.)
It is making me absolutely CRAZY that we aren’t circling the paralegal wagons and closing rank on these types of folks and doing what we can to alert all other paralegals, especially newbies, that this type of conduct is NOT okay, because, quite candidly, it’s not. It is a huge problem. Not just for the Rogue Paralegals and their “clients,” but for every paralegal. It causes credibility and reputation concerns for ALL of us. The traditional paralegals and the legitimate freelancers. Me, you, and every paralegal walking down Ethical Paralegal Boulevard with coveted visions of a big bonus, one-way ticket to a beach cabana with an on-call masseuse, a drink fetcher, and a dream.
Perhaps you find yourself wondering if there is some gray area or loophole that allows this type of thing. You wonder, “Maybe in his or her state, paralegals are allowed to practice in x, y, or z law without the supervision of an attorney.” You think to yourself, “Well, I don’t know if freelancers are maybe allowed to do this type of thing.” These folks will act utterly confident, almost emboldened. There is no gray area to be played, people. It’s an easy thing to look up. There is no loophole for these types to belly crawl through, although they seem to crawl beneath the barbwire, all the same. What these Rogue Paralegals are doing is unethical. It is also illegal. You should not stand for it. And I shouldn’t, either.
Today, I’m not here talking to the unethical 1%. I’m here to address the other 99% of individuals who are proud as hell to work as paralegals. I stand among you. I’m with you. I am here to issue a strong call to action. The next time you see this type of unethical conduct taking place online, especially on social media sites, take a stand. STAND UP and say that you believe the behavior, comments, or advertisements may be unethical. Follow up with a comment to ask whether or not this lovely person is holding his or her “services” out to members of the general public and working without the supervision of an attorney.
What will one comment change? Perhaps, not much. But when several reputable paralegals begin to STAND UP, their voices ring loudly, in unison, all throughout the nation, and their message is not lost. It may fall on the deaf ears of a Rogue Paralegal operating under a RPM (Rogue Paralegal Model), but other paralegals will proudly stand up with you. Newbies will realize and recognize this conduct is unethical and avoid it like a deadline at 4:59 on a Friday. You don’t have to lash out at these types. Be cordial. Be professional. Carry yourself in a dignified and respectful manner online. But be willing to step up. Be willing to say it may be unethical. Be prepared to be proud enough of what you do as a paralegal to preserve the integrity of the profession and all it stands for (or in this case, against). The reputation of every paralegal depends upon you being willing to take a stand. The reputation of the profession is on the line. You, me and every paralegal strolling down the paralegal pathway needs to give a damn. We must rise up, and make our voices heard, when we see unethical folks roaming through our profession with their dirty feet. We will not stand for it. Not that we ever did. But we will not sit silently or idly by any longer.
Report unethical conduct to your local paralegal association’s Ethics Director (that’s me, in Indiana), a national Ethics Board, or the proper authorities in your state, which could include the bar association, disciplinary commission, or attorney general’s office. If unsure who to approach, ask a respected paralegal.
Rogue Paralegals – know this: We see you. We’re looking right at you. And we won’t turn away. We’ll greet you on the corner of every social media site and will call out your unethical and illegal behavior the next time we see it. We will educate every newbie paralegal across the nation that we will not stand for you potentially dragging them down with you. They deserve better than that. Actually, we all do.
And the gift of our silence has come to an end.
It’s time for the good paralegals to stand UP.
And the Rogue Paralegals to stand down.
(& the other 99%)
We are THE UPRISING. The whisper, the voice, the echo, the movement.
Happy to join any paralegal task force who wants me, anywhere in the nation. I can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. And I can bring paralegal leaders from all across the nation with me.
And it bears mentioning that whether you are a paralegal who is pro-regulation and pro-autonomy or one who is against it, this is an issue for all of us.
The Paralegal Society @TPSparalegals
Hey Paralegals: Let’s send this message LOUD and clear throughout Paralegal Nation. We’re STANDING UP. Right here, right now. Like and share this post to help us move this important movement forward, paralegals! Leave a comment.
Until next time, keep it ethical. Keep your eyes open. Drink the caffeinated beverages of glory, protect the esquires (without killing them), and rock that role with the best of ’em. We know you will.