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Lawyers often use paralegals and legal assistants to prepare legal documents. While only certified lawyers may practice law, paralegals can still prepare legal documents if a lawyer oversees the work and accepts responsibility for it. With this in mind, would a non-lawyer practicing law for oneself (acting pro se) be able to have a paralegal prepare legal documents so long as the pro se non-lawyer oversees the work and accepts responsibility for it? After all, pro se non-lawyers are permitted to practice law for themselves.

Say, for example, I want to write a will but don't want to hire an expensive attorney. If a paralegal friend of mine were willing to help me write a will, would our arrangement be legal so long as I take responsibility for the will?

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    If you write your own will, just be aware that what counts is what you write, and not what you mean - they can be very different. And some paralegals know more about will writing than others. And some paralegals are better at stopping when things get complicated than others.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 18 at 17:06
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    A really interesting question. Ohwileke's answer was the answer I instinctively went to as well, but I'm starting to think it could go both ways. Would love to see if anyone can find decisions on point; I imagine this has come up before.
    – bdb484
    Aug 18 at 18:18
  • Is a non-lawyer writing their own will "practicing law"? Aug 19 at 0:06
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    @MichaelHall Would they be "practicing pro se," or is such not even considered "practicing" law? If it isn't practicing law, then would this mean that assistance from paralegals would be acceptable?
    – The Editor
    Aug 19 at 2:00
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    I think that's the key distinction. "The practice of law" usually refers to providing legal advice or representation to another person. A litigant could appear pro se, but I don't think he could be said to be practicing law. If a paralegal helps him by merely following instructions and performing ministerial acts, there's a reasonable argument to be made that no one has run afoul of UPL rules.
    – bdb484
    Aug 19 at 2:09

3 Answers 3

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With this in mind, would a non-lawyer practicing law for oneself (acting pro se) be able to have a paralegal prepare legal documents so long as the aforementioned non-lawyer oversees the work and accepts responsibility for it?

No.

Critically, many things that paralegals (who are not themselves members of a licensed profession) are allowed to do under the supervision of an attorney, are not things that they are permitted to do independently.

In the case of the question, the paralegal is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law if doing anything more than taking dictation and formatting documents (case law often refers to merely taking dictation as "acting as a scrivener", which is not the practice of law).

Unauthorized practice of law is a question of state law and varies somewhat, but the outcome in this particular fact pattern would be pretty consistent. For example, the Colorado Attorney Supreme Court has an FAQ that states:

The Colorado Supreme Court has defined the “practice of law” as “act[ing] in a representative capacity in protecting, enforcing, or defending the legal rights and duties of another and in counseling, advising and assisting [another] in connection with these rights and duties.”1 The Court’s words make clear that providing legal advice to another person constitutes the practice of law, as does the selection and drafting of legal documents for use by another person.2 A nonlawyer’s exercise of legal discretion on behalf of another’s legal interest is prohibited because of potential harm to the public.3

Thus, a non-lawyer generally cannot:

  1. Provide legal advice to another person;

  2. Select legal documents on behalf of another person;

  3. Draft legal documents on behalf of another person;

  4. Interpret the law as it may apply to another person’s situation;

  5. Represent another person in any legal transaction or matter;

  6. Prepare another person’s case for trial.

1 People v. Shell, 148 P.3d 162, 167 (Colo. 2006); Denver Bar Ass'n v. Pub. Util. Comm'n, 391 P.2d 467, 471 (Colo. 1964).

2 See C.R.C.P. 202.2(2); See also Shell, 148 P.3d at 167; Denver Bar Ass'n, 391 P.2d at 471 (holding that "there is no wholly satisfactory definition as to what constitutes the practice of law; it is not easy to give an all-inclusive definition....).

3 People v. Adams, 243 P.3d 256, 265 (Colo. 2010) (citing Perkins v. CTX Mortgage Co., 969 P.2d 93, 102 (Wash. 1999)).

See also, e.g., Baron v. Karmin Paralegal Services, __ N.J. Super. __ (2019). The Appellate Division in Karmin found that Karmin prepared legal documents for plaintiff, which is clearly the practice of law. Id. at 13–14 (citing Cape May Cty. Bar Ass’n v. Ludlum, 45 N.J. 121, 124 (1965)).

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  • You wrote, "Critically, many things that paralegals (who are not themselves members of a licensed profession) are allowed to do under the supervision of an attorney, are not things that they are permitted to do independently." But if the paralegal helps a nonlawyer working pro se, is that working "independently"? In a scenario that's exactly the same except that the one assisted by a paralegal is a certified lawyer, would the paralegal still be practicing law then? If not, what's the difference, assuming the actions of a paralegal are the same in both situations?
    – The Editor
    Aug 19 at 16:18
  • @TheEditor "if the paralegal helps a nonlawyer working pro se, is that working "independently"?" Yes. " In a scenario that's exactly the same except that the one assisted by a paralegal is a certified lawyer, would the paralegal still be practicing law then?" No. "If not, what's the difference, assuming the actions of a paralegal are the same in both situations?" No lawyer in the loop.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 19 at 18:42
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    @Relaxed "Does this apply if the paralegal (or anybody really) is not paid for their services?" Yes.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 19 at 18:42
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    @RobbieGoodwin "How does that Answer not forbid the paralegal from saying "Here's a relevant text book but if you want any help applying what the author says to your own case, you need to ask a lawyer"?" Almost all definitions of the practice of law involve applying legal knowledge to a particular person's situation either by giving them individualized advice or by drafting documents for them or by acting on their behalf.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 19 at 21:36
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – feetwet
    Aug 19 at 22:29
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I fully back the ohwilleke's answer, but add my 2c just so that the situation is understood even better.

Basically, the fact that you're asking a paralegal (as opposed to say a plumber) to draft your legal documents adds nothing whatsoever to the legality of it. A paralegal is not a lawyer — pretty much like a plumber. End of story, really.

The illegality here is not that you receive a legal advice from a non-lawyer, but that the non-lawyer gives it.

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Distilling some comments here, I'd take a contrary view, specific to this case.

Someone making a holographic will can't be said to be 'acting as a lawyer'. And if someone else, paralegal or not, gives advice and assistance without charging a fee, they're no different from any friend offering help (although presumably better informed).

Beyond that relationship, things surely could get problematic.

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    I don't see how it factors in whether the person rendering advice or assistance charges a fee for it. Are you suggesting that a a lawyer is not in fact practicing law when they work pro bono? Whether a person is practicing law is not a question of whether they are paid for their activities or what their day job is called (so, yes, a paralegal is no different in this regard from anyone else who is not licensed to practice law). It's a question of what services they render, and to whom. Aug 19 at 14:32
  • @JohnBollinger - I only mean that if a paralegal (or anyone) charges a fee for legal advice, there's no question about what has happened. In the absence of a fee, it's difficult to argue that 'practicing law' has occurred. Your pro bono example approaches that from the opposite end. So in my opinion (worth what you pay for it), a friend offering free advice is not practicing law, no matter their day job.
    – Jim Mack
    Aug 19 at 15:44
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    I don't see it, unless you're focusing on the "can they get away with it" angle, as opposed to the "were they in fact practicing law" angle. You seem to acknowledge that being paid is not an essential component of practicing law. So what is? This is by no means a novel question, and legal authorities have answers. Such as the Colorado Supreme Court, as quoted by ohwilleke in their answer. Drafting legal documents for another person certainly falls within the usual definition. Many forms of offering advice about legal matters does as well. Aug 19 at 16:11
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    @JimMack You are flat out 100% wrong and acting on that advice could land someone in jail.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 19 at 18:49
  • @ohwilleke - Lucky for everyone this isn't a legal advice site, then. My logic is simply this: making a holographic will is a legal act, and is not 'practicing law'. Assisting a friend in performing a legal act is generally not considered illegal. Writing a will for someone could cross that line. That isn't what's contemplated here.
    – Jim Mack
    Aug 19 at 23:34

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