Acting for the Lawyer, Not As the Lawyer

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 Ferole L. Tingley

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct tell us it is imperative that lawyers provide competent representation to a client. In the performance of those services, lawyers employ people to assist them: secretaries, experts, investigators, legal assistants, and others as required. 

When we are hired, or during the job instruction phase, it is the lawyer who should establish parameters for those who will be working with him, and that we learn them and abide by them. Absent those instructions we must do our best to learn what it is right, and what is not right.

To some of us who have been in the legal field for an extended time, this might seem like a song we have heard many times before. But, it bears repeating time and time again.

The secretary’s conduct must be compatible with the lawyer’s professional obligations. It is the lawyer who is responsible if an employee violates the rules of professional conduct to which he is subject.

The essence of the professional judgment of the lawyer is his educational ability to relate the general body and philosophy of law to a specific legal problem of a client. A secretary or other paraprofessional, regardless of experience in the field, does not have that fine-tuned ability. This is not to denigrate the level to which many women and men have risen without a degree from a law school. Experience is a great teacher, but there are things that should not be undertaken by other than the lawyer.

I have overheard nonlawyers come so very close to practicing law that it is scary. I am sure that if you think about it, you have too. With the permission of your employer you may be able to tell a client what has been happening in his case, but to say what procedures and actions your lawyer will be taking next is not within the purview of the legal secretary.

A legal secretary cannot give legal advice. Period. Have you heard what sounds like legal advice being giving by a nonlawyer? I am sorry to say I have.

We are not subject to the same rules that lawyers are. If the legal secretary discloses information relating to a client of the lawyer, it is not the secretary who is called into question. It is the lawyer. The lawyer is responsible. The lawyer can be disciplined.

There is much we can do to assist those who enter our field. Not only must they be taught procedures, they must be instructed in ethics–not just in the reading, but in following our continued examples.

I am so very proud of our profession, I am not a lawyer, I assist a lawyer.

Ferole Tingley holds professional certifications as  PLS, CLA, and CL§. She resides in Tucson, Arizona, is a charter member of Legal Secretaries International Inc., as well as a past president. She is a regular contributor to Legal Secretaries International Inc. In Brief and currently serves as Director of Certification.