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Paralegals and Unauthorized Practice of Law

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Paralegals are prohibited from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, and, if they do so, can be fined or even imprisoned. The purpose of this prohibition is presumably to protect consumers from being advised by unqualified individuals. The courts are also concerned about lay people engaging in legal practices when they are not governed by the same ethical restraints that apply to attorneys. Some, however, believe that the true purpose of this prohibition is to protect attorneys from competition by lay people who can provide comparable services for less money.
 

The state statutes prohibiting non-lawyers from practicing law do not clearly define "practice of law." The Model Code (see below) defines it as any activity that calls for the exercise of professional judgment, which is defined as "the educated ability to relate the general body and philosophy of law to a specific legal problem of a client." (EC 3-5) The courts have struggled with the ambiguity of these definitions and have concluded that certain tasks are prohibited. Paralegals cannot, for example, appear in court to present cases or argue motions. They can, however, represent clients at certain administrative hearings, such as those at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Social Security Administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Patent Office.

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