When you start on the path to becoming a paralegal, you’ll likely hear the term “UPL” (unauthorized practice of law) in your Intro to Paralegal Studies class. You’ll also hear about it in your paralegal ethics course, law office management course, and practically every single legal course that you take. Yes, it really is that important. It’s so important that it is something you should at least partially understand before you start school. In this post, you’re going to learn about what defines the unauthorized practice of law for paralegals and how to protect yourself against it.
What Is UPL?
As stated above, UPL is an acronym for the unauthorized practice of law. In a nutshell, this occurs when someone doesn’t have a license to practice law gives legal advice. That includes paralegals. In many states, the unauthorized practice of law is a felony. In other states, it is a disciplinary matter. To know exactly how your state treats UPL you have a few options:
- Check your state statutes about the unauthorized practice of law.
- Ask your local paralegal association.
- Ask your supervising attorney.
I recommend that all new paralegals and individuals studying to become a paralegal do all three. It never hurts to research the law on your own (and make it a habit to do so because laws do change). It never hurts to get into contact with your local paralegal associations (especially since most of them will have a student membership at a discounted rate). It also never hurts to get the opinion of your supervising attorney. However, you should also be cautious with that because sometimes attorneys will ask you to do things and not realize that you doing it will constitute UPL because you are not properly supervised.
Each State Defines Practicing Law
Although each state defines practicing law, it’s not always entirely clear. State law doesn’t necessarily explain in detail what is and isn’t going to be considered the unauthorized practice of law. The problem with defining what will equate to practicing law with such brevity can lead you into a gray area. The good news is that NALA’s Model Standards and Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegals summarizes some activities that you should not ever perform:
- Paralegals should not establish the attorney-client relationship.
- Paralegals should not set legal fees.
- Paralegals should not give legal opinions or legal advice.
- Paralegals cannot represent others in court except in administrative courts (such as Social Security Administration hearings and then only when they have the court’s authorization to do so).
- Paralegals should not engage in, encourage, or contribute to anything that could even be considered the unauthorized practice of law.
Preparing for the Real World
When you’re in school, you’ll feel like you’re learning a lot of information and that’s because you are. You’ll be asked by your instructors to think critically and to apply the law to real world scenarios and to textbook questions. This is good because it prepares you to help your future supervising attorney. By the end of your school career, you’ll realize you still have a lot to learn.
Yet, with experience from school and once you have experience working as a paralegal, you’ll begin to realize that you have more knowledge about the law, how courts sometimes rule in similar matters, and even about court rules and procedures than most people.
Your family, your friends, and even clients of the law firm will eventually ask you for legal advice. In many instances, you may be tempted to answer. Even if you know the answer with 100% certainty, you’re not allowed (by law) to give legal advice. You cannot give legal advice to your family. You cannot give legal advice to your friends. You cannot give legal advice to clients who call and are upset and want an answer right away.
This might sound harsh, but it’s to protect you from potentially being charged with a crime and being forced to pay steep fines, being sentenced to jail, and likely not ever working as a paralegal again. As a paralegal, people will put a lot of stock into what you may say about the law (even if your best friend asks you about their speeding ticket). If you’re wrong or if the court rules in a way that your friend, family member, or law firm client didn’t expect and they relied on what you said, you could land yourself into a lot of hot water.
Dealing With Clients
As a paralegal, you’re going to spend a lot of time talking with clients on the phone or in person. Clients may be worried, scared, angry, or upset. Often they will want an answer right away or they’ll ask you about their “options.” Unfortunately, this puts paralegals into a precarious situation. We want to help, but we legally cannot answer questions that may be seen as providing legal advice. Do not give advice to a client. Do not give them a list of options even if you know you are right. Gently explain that you are a paralegal and not an attorney and that you will ask the attorney as soon as possible and get back to them.
You should also immediately let the client know that you are a paralegal and not an attorney. “Mr. Smith, I know you’re upset. However, I’m a paralegal and so I can’t answer that question for you. However, what I can do is ask the attorney and find out for you. I’ll call you back as soon as I can.” If they continue to pressure you for your opinion, let them know that you are legally not allowed to answer because you are not an attorney.
It’s one thing to play armchair lawyer through social media and discuss cases that have no effect on you and that are not matters being handled by your law firm. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. However, if your opinion or advice may directly affect someone’s legal rights or their legal position, do not get involved. Do not give your opinion. This is to protect you just as much as it is to protect them.
You Play an Important Role as a Paralegal
As a paralegal, you play an important role that can affect the lives of others. Your actions can and will also affect you. Always avoid UPL or anything that you believe may be seen as UPL by a court of law.