March 22, 1982
With appropriate direction and supervision, a legal assistant may perform a wide range of delegated tasks for an active member of the bar, provided that (a) the client understands that the legal assistant is not a lawyer, (b) the lawyer in fact supervises the legal assistant's performance of duties, and (c) the lawyer remains fully responsible to the client for all acts and omissions of the legal assistant.
A legal assistant may sign letters on the lawyer's letterhead, provided the signature is followed by an appropriate designation so that there can be no question that the writer is a nonlawyer.
It is not proper for a legal assistant's name to appear on briefs or other pleadings even though done in conjunction with the name and signature of the responsible lawyer.
References: MCPR DR 3-101(A); ABA i1937; Guidelines For The Utilization of Legal Assistant Services.
A lawyer wishes to know if it is ethically permissible to place the name of a legal assistant (nonlawyer) upon a brief. The individual's name and designation "legal assistant" would appear on the brief along with the responsible lawyer's name and signature.
It is recognized that lawyers commonly employ a variety of Assistants, including secretaries, investigators, law student interns and paralegals to perform a variety of tasks connected with the practice of law. It is equally true that various nonlawyer personnel are engaged in a multitude of activities such interviewing witnesses, obtaining copies of public records, investigation of law, preparation of contracts, deeds, pleadings, briefs and other legal papers and a wide range of administrative duties essential to the efficient practice of law. There is no ethical violation provided the client is informed and understands the legal assistant is not an attorney, the tasks delegated to lay persons are properly supervised, and the lawyer retains full professional responsibility for and reviews the work product and maintains a direct relationship with the client. Nonlawyers cannot assume responsibilites such as advising parties of their legal rights or appearances in Court, as such activity constitutes the unauthorized practice of law, which would put the lawyer in violation of MCPR DR 3-101(A) which prohibits a lawyer from in anyway aiding another in the unauthorized practice of law.
The words "legal assistant" suggest a specialized training and status. In fact, a number of colleges and universities throughout the United States offer a paralegal program consisting of one to two years of academic study, including legal research and writing. In view of established educational standards for paraprofessionals, who are frequently described as legal assistants, no violation is seen in designating a non-lawyer a "legal assistant," provided the individual has satisfactorily completed the necessary educational requirements. It is noted, however, that there are no state licensing requirements for legal paraprofessionals nor are they subject to disciplinary action for violation of ethics rules.
With attention focused on the use of the phrase "legal assistant" on various forms of correspondence and documents originating from the lawyer's office, it is noted that the American Bar Association has approved as ethical a law firm's use of "paralegals" or "legal assistants" to conduct correspondence on behalf of the firm on firm letterhead in connection with work incident to the proper conduct on their responsibilities, provided the capacity of the person who signs the letter is accurately identified so that the receiver is not in anyway mislead. See ABA i1937. This in not to imply that a lawyer may include a legal assistant's name on the letterhead of the lawyer or law firm. See Guidelines For The Utilization of Legal Assistant Services, Vol. 57 No. 2A - Special Issue, State Bar of Michigan Journal pp 334 et. seq.
On the question of a nonlawyer's name on a brief followed by the designation legal assistant, the practice would serve no useful purpose. It is recognized that a law firm may ethically employ a legal assistant, and in certain circumstances they may utilize the firm's stationery, provided the legal assistant is clearly identified. The fact is that a nonlawyer is not permitted to practice law, which for purposes of this opinion means that a legal assistant may not directly give advise to a client or advance a client's cause in an adversary proceeding before a judicial tribunal. Even assuming that the task of legal research and brief writing are duties which may be properly delegated to, and performed by, a nonprofessional under the direction of a lawyer, it is improper for a nonlawyer's name to appear on briefs or other pleadings even though done in conjunction with the name and signature of the responsible lawyer.