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                                         121 N.J.L.J. 301                                            
                                         February 18, 1988


Appointed by the New Jersey Supreme Court


Non-Attorney (Paralegal)
Assistants: Signing Correspondence

    We have been asked to clarify and possibly modify prior Opinion 296 (Supplement), 99 N.J.L.J. 113 (1976) relating to the types of correspondence which non-lawyer assistants, sometimes called paralegals, may properly sign on the letterhead of the firm which employs them.
    The inquiry specifically addressed the problem in the context of a real estate practice. In that context, inquirer argues that it should be proper for a paralegal to sign letterhead in correspondence with mortgage companies, offices of county clerks, title companies, and the like.
    We are in accord with that view as long as the correspondence is confined to the gathering or dissemination and filing of routine information or documents in connection with a title or mortgage closing.
    Generally speaking, and going beyond real estate practice, it is the sense of this Committee that the use of legal assistants can be of great benefit in increasing efficiency in the practice of law and in the consequent reduction in the cost of performing legal services, to the mutual benefit of both clients and attorneys. It is not and should not be our intention to hamstring the effectiveness of the non-lawyer assistant by placing artificial barriers in the way of the performance of his or her duties. Thus, for example, the non-lawyer assistant may, we believe, properly sign firm letterhead in connection with routine tasks in many fields of law such as the gathering of factual information and documents including from governmental agencies (other than tribunals). Our mention of these specific categories of tasks, however, should not be construed to exclude other tasks of a similar routine nature. Also, of course, we continue to require that on all correspondence signed by a non-lawyer assistant his or her identity should be clearly set forth.
    The inquirer additionally suggests that correspondence "with clients or other attorneys might also be signed by the paralegal." In this area, as in correspondence with tribunals before which only an attorney is permitted to practice, we have more difficulty. We believe that the signature on such correspondence generally speaking should be confined to that of the responsible attorney. The principles expressed in our prior opinion concerning the ethical considerations relating to former DR 3-101(A) and DR 3-103(A), and former EC 3-6 remain in full force and effect. The governing provisions are presently found in RPC 5.3(a) and (b) entitled "Responsibilities Regarding Non-Lawyer Assistants" and in 5.5(b) relating to the unauthorized practice of law and prohibiting a lawyer from assisting a person who is not a member of the bar in the performance of activity that constitutes the unauthorized practice of law.

    The spirit of these provisions requires that the signature on correspondence with tribunals, clients, and attorneys representing opposing interests be confined to that of the responsible attorney. Such a rule has several beneficial effects including the following: It avoids    the opportunity or temptation for the non-lawyer assistant to step over the line by rendering legal advice, for example in the interpretation of the meaning or effect of legal documents. Second, it enables the responsible attorney to keep abreast of the matter by controlling important correspondence and so performing his essential function as the responsible attorney including his obligation of close supervision of the activities of the legal assistant. Third, it further emphasizes the notion that it is the attorney and not the legal assistant who is the responsible advisor or actor in the matter, and fourth it tends to maintain direct contact between the attorney and his client, the attorney and his adversary, and the attorney and the tribunal so that there can be no question or excuse regarding the origin of or the responsibility for the subject matter of the correspondence. We stress again, as in our earlier opinion, that a non-lawyer assistant or paralegal "...should never perform services which involve the exercise of the professional judgment of a lawyer, nor should he advise clients with respect to their legal rights, nor should the activities of a paralegal in any way modify or interfere with direct attorney-client relationships or those between an attorney and his opposing attorney." Opinion 296 Supplement, supra.

    Even here, however, we should not and do not intend to bar a non-lawyer assistant's signature on correspondence consisting exclusively of purely routine matters such as a request to a court clerk for a docket sheet or inquiring as to a court calendar or consisting simply of a covering letter forwarding a document originating elsewhere.
    Obviously it is impossible in this opinion precisely to define all types of correspondence which a non-lawyer assistant may or may not execute, but the examples specified above should be helpful in delineating appropriate and inappropriate areas. We stress, however, that it is the attorney who must sign and thereby retain clear responsibility for even marginally substantive correspondence with his clients, his adversaries, and the tribunal before which he is practicing.

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