These summaries were prepared by McGuireWoods LLP lawyer Thomas E. Spahn. They are based on the letter opinions issued by the Virginia State Bar. Any editorial comments reflect Mr. Spahn's current personal views, and not the opinions of the Virginia State Bar, McGuireWoods or its clients. 
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28-Law Firm Staff

49-Lawyers - Miscellaneous

Lawyers may rely on non-lawyer "employees, agents, contractors, and vendors" to assist in "client intake tasks" under certain limited conditions -- as long as the pertinent jurisdiction does not consider their actions to be the unauthorized practice of law. Non-lawyers often engage in such intake tasks for nonprofit legal services organizations, for-profit law firms offering "limited scope online legal services," and for law firms handling "mass tort and class action representations." Although on its face ABA Model Rule 1.4(b) focuses on explaining the scope of a representation, bars also apply those duties to lawyers who communicate with prospective clients. Lawyers may "develop policies, train, and supervise" nonlawyers who engage in such actions as: obtaining "initial information about the matter"; "performing an initial conflict check"; determining if the would-be client seeks assistance "in an area of law germane to the lawyer's practice"; "answering general questions about fee agreement or process of representation"; and "obtaining the prospective client's signature on the fee agreement." But such prospective clients must be offered the opportunity to discuss fees and other pertinent issues with a lawyer, who does not relinquish her ABA Model Rule duties. Jurisdictions' unauthorized practice of law rules determine whether such non-lawyers may answer prospective clients' "specific questions." Non-lawyers may convey to a lawyer any questions that "would require the application of law to facts." Similarly, non-lawyers may provide "general information" about fees, but may not: provide advice about "what legal services the client should obtain"; negotiate fees or expenses; or offer "an interpretation of the rights and responsibilities set forth in the engagement agreement." Lawyers are ultimately responsible for making sure that their non-lawyer colleagues do not cross the line into the pertinent jurisdiction's impermissible unauthorized practice of law.

Copyright 2000, Thomas E. Spahn