Free Legal Advice – The Social Talk No-No

June 11, 2019

Guest Post by Candess Zona-Mendola

Breaking the ice during social engagements has never been an issue for me. I often start a conversation by commenting on someone’s attire or giving them praise on one of their accomplishments. It puts the focus on the person of interest and takes it away from me. I love talking to people. I love networking. It is a wonderful experience for the extrovert I am. But during many conversations, the person of interest will often ask who I am and what I do. I’m a Trial Paralegal is my go-to response.

Breaking the ice during social engagements has never been an issue for me. I often start a conversation by commenting on someone’s attire or giving them praise on one of their accomplishments. It puts the focus on the person of interest and takes it away from me. I love talking to people. I love networking. It is a wonderful experience for the extrovert I am. But during many conversations, the person of interest will often ask who I am and what I do.
I’m a Trial Paralegal is my go-to response.

Then, that’s when the tango begins. Or rather, the free legal advice dance.

Oh, you work in the legal field? I have a question for you…

The conversation takes an abrupt turn to some legal issue suffered by their mother, brother, sister, friend, former roommate, or even themselves. My sister’s former spouse is verbally abusive and is trying to take away her children, how can she get sole custody all on her own without hiring a lawyer? My neighbor’s tree is growing onto my property, can I cut it without their permission? My mother is getting up there in years, can I just download a will template online? It is always a legal question involving custody, divorce, neighbor or landlord disputes, estate planning, or traffic tickets.

Oh, bless them for what they do not know. I am a paralegal. Even if I knew the answers to your legal questions, I cannot ethically answer them. Why? Because paralegals cannot give legal advice.

That is usually my first response. I’m sorry, I can’t answer that for you. Paralegals are not allowed to give legal advice. That usually works. The asker is usually satisfied with my response. I will often change the conversation back to the person or talk about what I actually do.

But that does not work every time. Lots of people want free legal advice. I get it. It is awesome to get something for free. I personally love getting those little freebie beauty samples when I buy my make-up. But I digress. This is where the conversation can turn uncomfortable, not to mention put you in an ethical pickle.

You are the paralegal. You are just as smart a lawyer, right?

The asker always starts with a statement of praise. I get that uneasy feeling in my stomach because I want to be the nice guy. I want to help. That’s why I became a paralegal. Besides, I already told them I could get in trouble for telling them. I’ve already tried my soft approach. I don’t want to be mean or rude to them, especially if I am trying to network with them.

In the past, I would respond in what I felt was self-depreciating. I would say, I don’t know anything about landlord-tenant issues. I have no experience in that field. This made me feel bad. It made me feel like I was less in some way because I was not a lawyer, and therefore, not good enough to be considered a “legal professional.” Why did I feel that way? Because (1) I just told them I was a paralegal and an important one, (2) they praised me and confirmed by credibility, and (3) I ruined it all when I told them I am not as awesome as they thought. It was a vicious circle of guilt, doubt, and shame. Despite those feelings, I always prided myself that I stuck to my guns. I did not commit an ethical violation, even if that meant shattering my credibility in the process.

I learned over the years that these party talk concerns are not just directed to paralegals, but to anyone who works in the legal profession. Imagine my surprise when my attorney was presented with the same questions as I over a dinner we had a few years ago with a group of business owners. I would love to tell you that I had the grace he did when he responded to these questions. I didn’t at the time. My heart immediately started beating fast, and I did whatever I could to not choke on my words. I hated admitting I didn’t know something. Yes, it was stupid. But we all want to save face when we are talking to other people.

It was when he responded to those questions that I learned there was a better way. I could answer those questions without crushing my credibility. And here’s how it went at the dinner:

Business Man 1: So, what do you do?

Lawyer: I am a lawyer. I litigate products liability cases.

Business Man 1: [Ignores the fact that Lawyer just said he does products liability.] I love lawyers! Hey, I got a question for you. I am going through a pretty nasty divorce right now, and I don’t like my attorney. My soon-to-be ex-wife is trying to take me for everything I got. My lawyer claims we live in a community property state, so she has a right to half of my property. But you see, I bought my house before we got married. So, since it was my property before we got married, I don’t have to give her half of it, right?

Lawyer: I’m sorry to hear about your divorce. You see, being a lawyer is like being a doctor, we all specialize in something. I specialize in products liability. Your lawyer specializes in divorce cases. Since I don’t specialize in divorces, I am not the best person to answer that question. If you don’t trust what your lawyer is telling you, you may want to seek advice from another divorce lawyer. Think of it this way, if you had heart issues, you want to see a cardiologist not a podiatrist for those issues. A podiatrist would not know the best treatment for someone with heart issues. Why? Because he works with feet, not hearts.

I was stunned and elated. He firmly refused to provide free legal advice but did so in a nice way that did not reduce his status. He flipped the conversation. He elevated his credibility instead of crushing it like I did. He maintained the respect of the asker.

I am happy to report that this response goes well in pretty much any conversation for me now. I say I can’t give legal advice and give the specialty comparison blurb all at once. That usually satisfies the asker and allows me to change the topic. I don’t feel like I have reduced my status or committed any social faux pas.

This is a good lesson for all of us. Never feel like you need to commit an unethical act of giving free legal advice because you are being too nice or want to be respected for your profession. Telling someone you cannot give legal advice is ok. In fact, it is crucial for your continued employment.

Candess is the Senior Trial Paralegal at the Lange Law Firm, PLLC and the author of new paralegal guidebook The Indispensable Paralegal: Your Guide to Getting It All Done. You can learn more about Candess here.

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NFPA Seeks Volunteers for Ethics Board

June 5, 2019

Have you ever thought,

“I have a personal and professional obligation to educate paralegals, students, the legal community, and, well, everyone about ethics”?

If you enjoy research and writing and having your opinion heard, NFPA’s Ethics Board may be the place for you!

The Ethics Board is now accepting Letters of Interest from NFPA members, non-members and attorneys! If you know a non-NFPA paralegal or an attorney who might be interested, invite them to submit a Letter of Interest.

Please submit your Letter of Interest to ethics@paralegals.org by July 10, 2019.

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The Disclaimer is There for a Reason

August 8, 2018

It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon … a hot, summer day in Atlanta.

At StarrParalegals, I was fulfilling my duties as NFPA’s Ethics Chair, knocking out some administrative and other non-billable work, and (lucky me) getting sucked into word play ping-pong with a willfully clueless non-lawyer.

You’ve got Mail!

(NB: StarrParalegals complies with all ABA guidelines for electronic communication. References to AOL are for entertainment purposes only.)  

The subject line referenced an upcoming hearing in bankruptcy court. With visions of billable hours dancing in my head, I read the email:

Ms. Starr:

I really enjoyed your web site, truly texan. It conveyed that you are good at what you do and there is no doubt that you speak your mind.

Not to waste your time, I am NOT an attorney.  I am a small [businessman].  I am asking for your recommendation.

Can you recommend a paralegal that could attend a bankruptcy Hearing being held …  Thursday … [in] Houston Texas (see attached)?

(The attachment was a 341 Notice for a Chapter 11 )

The execution of a Settlement with the Debtor is possible. The person would need to be a notary?

Also would like to know what the anticipated charge for their services will be.

Why do people think the disclaimer that is prominently displayed all over my website doesn’t apply to them?

I wanted to speak my mind; hit him with both barrels. Instead, I forwarded the email to a handful of trusted, dot-wearing, ethical legal folk and shared the redacted email on Facebook

My high school crush saw the problem and fixed it. The author wrote ‘texan’. Who doesn’t know that ‘Texan’ is always capitalized??

One of my bankruptcy attorney friends quipped:

I also like the part where he wants the person practicing UPL to attempt to collect on a debt by “settling” it, because that’s not a stay violation.

(I trust you read that with all the intended sarcasm.)

I crafted and sent my response. It was delicate (mostly) and direct:

I’m flattered you like my site and my style. I am good at what I do, which is why I recommend you hire an attorney. You need one – especially in a Chapter 11. Paralegals are not permitted to work for non-attorneys – even in Texas.

It would be unethical for me to suggest another paralegal provide services that fall under the umbrella of practicing law. Even if a freelance paralegal were to attend the Meeting of Creditors ‘on your behalf’, (s)he would only be allowed to report what was said – not answer questions or interpret the facts and, most definitely, not permitted to ‘represent your interests’ regarding a settlement.

‘Nuf said? Right?

Apparently not.

Whilst speaking with potential NFPA Ethics Board members, my email pinged, the phone rang (I didn’t recognize the number), a text was sent and a voicemail left.

I checked the voicemail transcription (useless). I listened to the message.

Then I listened to it again,
– FLUMMOXED –
and again,
– GOBSMACKED –
and again,
– INCREDULOUS –

Here’s the clarified (and redacted), albeit unpunctuated, transcription:

Pam <REALLY???> you know I think I have a solution um the person that you recommend could just work for the —– law firm for —– he’s an attorney so you can just send the bill to the —- law firm and uhm you know uhm that way ⁠it gets by the idiosyncrasy that you um mention, but basically we don’t need any representation or anything we just need somebody ⁠to just go there, be there and pick up any paperwork that needs to be picked up or you know um and if there’s anything … because they’ll be a report that the court will ⁠ give as to you know what happened but we just want somebody there just to pick up stuff or to be there and report back you know exactly what happened and not not technical law to make any representation on our behalf so anyway thought you’d work for the —- law firm or whomever you’d recommend and I think I sent you an email that person’s address thank you very much thank you very much…

And the somewhat less offensive (also redacted) email:

I have lost a great deal of money to the person who is declaring bankruptcy.  I made my money and try to spend it wisely.  I do not need an attorney for this matter on Thursday.  All I need is for a person to report back and pick up any related paperwork the court hands out. And, possibly witness the execution of a document(s).

I have an attorney with —– Law Firm here in —– that is advising me. The —– firm is one of the oldest most respected firms in —.

Let’s circle back, shall we?

uhm that way it gets by the idiosyncrasy that you uhm mention

IDIOSYNCRASY??????!!!!!!
To borrow from Inigo Montoya: I do not think it means what you think it means.

The phrases “are you out of your ducking mind” and “are you ducking kidding me” rang loudly in my head and desperately tried to make it into my response.

An end run around the law with complete disregard for everything I stand for as a dot-wearing* ethical paralegal … INCONCEIVABLE!

So many potential ethical violations … I tell myself to keep the response plain and concise. It wasn’t easy.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written or about me, you know 1) I won’t budge on this issue; 2) it’s not an idiosyncrasy, it’s the law; 3) there is no ‘work around’ in which I allow an individual to hire StarrParalegals but bill a law firm for my time; and 4) no one but my mother may call me ‘Pam’.

If —- is a bankruptcy attorney licensed to practice in the Southern District of Texas bankruptcy court and wishes to discuss the possibility of the —- firm hiring my company, he can call me to discuss. Otherwise, this conversation is over.

It took him almost 2 hours to reply with his perceived loophole:

Please know that I carefully read what you wrote, which was, “If a freelance paralegal were to attend the Meeting of Creditors ‘on your behalf’, (s)he would only be allowed to report what was said“.  Sending a report and picking up any hands out is all that is being asked of the paralegal.  I can have a Wells Fargo bank teller witness and notarize a signature if needed.

My apologies for referring to you by the name your mother used.  

Your involvement, or the name of a respected associate would be appreciated.

What part of “conversation over” is so difficult to understand??

Sir,

You have selectively read my words to construe the intent in your favor. The first word of the sentence is “EVEN” [emphasis added] purposefully chosen to convey the unlikelihood of such event ever taking place.

I repeat, it would be unethical for me or any paralegal to provide services that fall under the umbrella of practicing law. It is not my job to educate you or your ‘advising attorney’ in the nuances of UPL.

I will not involve my company in this matter, nor will I ‘refer you to a respected associate’.

End of discussion.

We shall see.

* The ‘dot wearing’ references … take a quick gander at The Uprising (a faction of The Paralegal Society) on Facebook; a dedicated faction of paralegals who believe in upholding ethics for all paralegalkind, who have adopted polka dots, in all shapes, sizes, combinations, and colors as our standard.

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