Is your paralegal giving legal advice inadvertently? What is your firm doing to ensure that your paralegal and non-attorney staff are not crossing the line and giving legal advice to clients or others contacting your firm? As a paralegal, I find it is somewhat common to find myself in a situation where the client of the attorney is asking me questions that I’m not permitted to answer. You have to assume that it is happening frequently and make sure that you are taking proactive steps to prevent problems from happening.
A Cautionary Tale of a Paralegal Giving Legal Advice Inadvertently
At a MCLE event I recently attended, the course leader shared a story about a case involving a paralegal who worked in a family law firm. Apparently, the paralegal answered the main phone line and the caller turned out to be a friend of the paralegal. The friend called inquiring about representation in a divorce. The friend proceeded to ask several questions that crossed the line into legal advice. The paralegal attempted to dodge the questions but ultimately answered the friend’s questions and gave some legal advice. The paralegal did not check for conflicts before talking to the friend. Unfortunately for the paralegal, the firm was representing the friend’s spouse and the call was a set up. Ultimately, the firm was taken off of the case and the client was obviously very upset.
In my experience, what usually occurs is the client directly asks me for legal advice or shares information about a case that I know requires immediate legal advice. When the person directly asks questions that I can’t answer, it’s generally easy to explain that I’m not allowed to answer questions like that. I can offer to either let the attorney know about the client’s question or set up a time for them to talk to the attorney. However, there have been instances where that did not work due to the urgency of the situation.
When I was working for a family law attorney, I called a client to schedule a meeting so the attorney could be updated on the status of things with the client. During that call, the client mentioned that she was angry with the opposing party for not paying child support as agreed and therefore was not allowing him visitation with their child as retaliation. Because I am an experienced family law paralegal, I knew that failure to pay child support does not give good cause for failing to follow a custody order. Unknowingly, the client was jeopardizing the case by withholding visitation. However, because I am a paralegal and not an attorney, I could not advise the client on what to do.
In this case, the attorney was away and unavailable to speak to the client immediately. I knew it might be some time before the attorney could get in touch with this client. I explained to the client that I am not an attorney, I could not give her legal advice, and that I believed the attorney would likely advise her not to withhold visitation because of the non-payment of child support. I set up a time for her to talk to the attorney as soon as she was back in the office and I advised the client I would be emailing the attorney about the situation. The attorney followed up with the client by email and gave legal advice.
Preparing Paralegals, Administrative Staff for the Inevitable Client Inquiries
The attorney I was working for had prepared me for how she wanted me to handle these types of inevitable situations. A different family law attorney may have preferred their paralegal to handle it differently. It is important to train your paralegal and administrative staff on how you want them to respond when these conversations come up. You want your clients to feel like your staff is responsive, knowledgeable and customer service oriented without crossing the line into giving legal advice.
3 Reasons Telling Your Paralegal to Never Answer Questions Could Backfire
It may be tempting to tell your paralegal to never answer any questions from clients, no matter how innocuous they may seem because it’s possible the answer might be legal advice. This approach can backfire in three ways:
- Staff Trust: Telling your paralegal never to answer any questions can make your staff feel you do not have any trust or confidence in them as a professional
- Client Customer Service: It can also lead to your clients feeling like they aren’t getting good customer service and prompt answers to their inquiries
- Unnecessary Billable Hours: In some instances, clients may think that you are trying to rack up billable hours unnecessarily by scheduling lots of calls and meetings
A more nuanced approach that allows your staff a bit of autonomy within clearly defined boundaries can make for happier employees and clients.
6 Ways to Avoid Your Paralegal Giving Legal Advice
The following are six ways you help to prepare your staff and safeguard your firm against possible legal problems:
- Regularly Check In: Make it a habit of checking in with your staff. Ask them about the conversations they are having with your clients when they contact them for scheduling meetings and other administrative issues
- Types of Questions: Find out what kinds of questions your clients are usually asking and what your staff is saying in response
- Role Play: Role play with them and offer suggestions on how they can make the client feel heard while still deflecting the questions that can only be answered with legal advice
- Coaching: Coach them on how to describe a typical process or procedure while still making it clear that they are not setting an expectation for a case outcome
- What to Immediately Bring Forward: Discuss the types of things that a client may share that you, the attorney, want brought to your attention immediately
- Topics that are Off Limits: Ensure that your paralegals and administrative staff understand what topics are always off limits with clients and should never be discussed
It should be an ongoing process of ensuring your staff is not giving legal advice. Even the most experienced staff can make a mistake. If conversations about not giving legal advice while still giving great customer service are a regular part of the culture at your firm, it will have a positive impact on your staff development.
The Final Word
Paralegals are legal professionals who can be a huge asset in ensuring your clients have a positive experience with your practice. They can step in and handle many things when you are not available for your clients, but obviously there are some things they can’t handle for you. Empowering your paralegal to do the things that they can while having clear boundaries for the things they can’t do can help make your clients and staff happier. When you have happy clients and a happy staff it’s much easier to have a successful, thriving law practice.
Hope Arnold is an experienced award-winning certified paralegal working with law firms throughout California. She is the owner of Paralegal Hope.
Hope was named the San Francisco Bar Association’s 2019 Paralegal of the Year for her outstanding dedication to her craft, deep skill set, and ability to help firms grow their practices.