Document Type

Article

Publication Date

6-15-2009

Abstract

Lawyers commonly associate with nonlawyers to assist in their performance of their lawyering tasks. A lawyer cannot know with confidence, though, whether the delegation of some tasks to a nonlawyer colleague might result in her assisting in the unauthorized practice of law, because the state of the law and the commentary about nonlawyer practice is so confused and incoherent. Some respected authority within the profession tells the lawyer that she may only delegate preparatory matters and must prohibit the nonlawyer from discussing legal matters with clients, or negotiating on behalf of clients. Other authority suggests that the lawyer may delegate a wide array of tasks as long as the lawyer supervises the work of the nonlawyer and accepts responsibility for it. A good faith lawyer reviewing the available commentary would find it difficult to achieve appropriate guidance for her work. This uncertainty affects not only lawyers working with paralegals and law clerks, but firms hiring out of state lateral associates and partners, and law school clinical programs engaged in transactional work. This Article articulates a framework for assessing delegation choices, a framework which is both coherent and sensible. The framework relies on insights about lawyering judgment and risk assessment, client informed consent, and unauthorized practice of law prophylaxis. Any delegation of work by a lawyer to a nonlawyer involves an exercise of the lawyer’s judgment about an appropriate balance of risk and efficiency, along with an eye toward the client’s informed choice about how to achieve the goals of the representation most efficiently. The prevailing unauthorized practice of law dogma prevents a client from seeking the most economical representation by only retaining a nonlawyer, but that dogma trusts lawyers to protect a client’s interests. With those considerations in place, this Article shows that the profession cannot, and in fact does not, deny the lawyer any categorical options in making delegation choices, except for those involving public court appearances. Aside from sending a nonlawyer to court, a lawyer may responsibly delegate any of her lawyering activities to a nonlawyer associate, subject to the prevailing conceptions of competent representation and subject to the lawyer’s retaining ultimate responsibility for the resulting work product and performance. Some commentary and some court opinions suggest a different answer to the questions addressed here, but those authorities do not withstand careful analysis. This Article shows that a more careful reading of the commentary and the court dicta supports the framework and the thesis offered here. Nonlawyers may not independently engage in activity which equates to the practice of law, if by “independently” we mean without supervision and oversight from a lawyer. That important and uncontroversial limitation, however, is the only categorical restriction on a lawyer’s discretion. A supervised nonlawyer may play a much more active and important role in a lawyer’s overall representation of her client than many have claimed. For the client, that is a very good result.