Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?
I see red each time I view online discussion board posts by non-attorney Legal Document Assistants who ask for and receive advice on behalf of clients. This online promulgation of information and advice is an obvious violation and - no two ways about it - the unauthorized practice of law. A proper LDA business model should contain intelligent and well thought out measures and be carefully structured to serve both the client and the LDA while complying with all governing laws. Clients with "inquiries" should be directed to the appropriate legal resources, not told to "hang on" while the LDA tries to figure something out to make the sale.
We have a spiel that we give to each and every client. We inform each client that our relationship is much like that of an attorney and support staff. They are [their own] attorney and we are support staff. It is the client's duty to visit the law library and research forms and procedures relative to their action. Clients are instructed to to bring those materials to us and to include written instructions and information relating to the forms. We do not bore each prospective client with a lengthy Business & Professions Code discussion which they find confusing and unwanted. We tell them that we are required to provide them with a written contract for purposes of consumer protection. We make certain they understand that we are not attorneys, but are registered and bonded legal document preparers. We finish with how they, alone, are responsible for the selection, content and form of their documents. I have found that prospective clients appreciate the plain talk and understand, from the very beginning of our relationship, the services provided and our limitations. We also do not write queries to online message boards or send emails asking for advice and then, in turn, disseminate that information and advice to our clients. Let's leave that type of UPL activity to the rogue paralegals.
Good business practices are essential in our field. These are the procedures and policies that keep our businesses viable. This initial explanation of our relationship is our tool to maintain compliance and it has actually increased sales. Clients are pleased to be told "you are your own attorney" and understand that we are not responsible for any mistakes in the content or selection of forms as both are the client's absolute responsibility. Clients also enjoy performing the research necessary to facilitate their actions, and this research lays the groundwork that enables the client to intelligently represent himself or herself in court or mediation. My clients are amazed at how quickly they obtain the necessary information from the library. Clients come into our office with thumb drives or laptops, or email us, with the downloaded information they obtained at the law library with a just few quick keystrokes.
The county law libraries have every resource a person could possibly need, and librarians' skills are top notch. No longer do people enter the law library to flail about, wandering the aisles and wondering which book or books to pull from the shelves. Law librarians are extremely helpful, knowledgeable, and eager to assist anyone. What was once a tedious task is now interesting and comprehensive. I believe law libraries are stalwart partners, and are in fact, leaders in the access to justice movement. I thank each and every staff member for helping the multitudes of self-represented litigants.
There is nothing more frustrating than to read or overhear a registered LDA asking for advice for a client or worse yet, commenting on the research they are doing for a non-attorney client. I also cannot fathom that a registered LDA (who is clearly aware of the prohibitions concerning the unauthorized practice of law) would dispense this advice to non-attorneys. Most LDAs are form-fillers and do not have the legal acumen to understand all facets of a claim or remedies. A paralegal, on the other hand, might have the knowledge, but should know the difference between providing information and giving legal advice.
California is one of the few states allowing document preparers to contract directly with consumers. Some other states are not so compassionate toward the self-represented. It has long been my desire that other states would be influenced by California laws pertaining to LDAs, rather than California becoming influenced by its own LDAs' lack of compliance. There are several different ways we can successfully assist clients without breaking or even "bending" the laws. If we do not maintain our integrity and honor the statutes that grant us the authorization to engage in business as document preparers, the California Legislature might very well decide to mirror other states. It starts and ends with each and every one of us. It is up to us to protect consumers by abiding by the rules.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?