Staying On The Right Side Of The Legal Advice Line

As a paralegal, it’s not unusual for me to find myself in a tricky situation with clients of the attorney. What often happens is the client asks me directly for legal advice or shares information about a case that I know requires immediate legal advice. If you have any non-lawyer staff in your practice, this is likely happening to them too. What are you doing to ensure that your paralegal is giving good customer service and being responsive without crossing the line into legal advice?

Once when I was working for a family law attorney, I called a client to schedule a meeting because the client had not been in touch with the attorney for a while. The client mentioned that she was angry with the opposing party for not paying child support and therefore was not allowing him visitation with their child as retaliation. Because I am an experienced family law paralegal, I knew that nonpayment of child support is not good cause for failing to follow a custody order and the client was jeopardizing the case by withholding visitation. However, because I am a paralegal and not an attorney, I could not give the client that legal advice.

Typically, I would have had the client speak with the attorney right away, but in this situation the attorney was out of town and I didn’t know how quickly the attorney might be able to give the client legal advice. I explained to the client that I am not an attorney and could not give her legal advice. I further explained that I believed the attorney would likely advise her not to withhold visitation because of non-payment of child support. I set up a time for her to talk to the attorney as soon as she was back in the office and advised the client I would be emailing the attorney about the situation. The attorney promptly followed up with the client by email and gave legal advice.

The attorney I was working for had prepared me for how she wanted me to handle these types of inevitable situations. A different family law attorney may have preferred I handled it differently. It is important to train your paralegal and administrative staff on how you want them to respond when these conversations come up. You want your clients to feel like your staff is responsive, knowledgeable and customer service oriented without crossing the line into giving legal advice.

It may be tempting to tell your paralegal to never answer any questions from clients, no matter how innocuous they may seem because it’s possible the answer might be legal advice. This approach can make your staff feel you do not have trust or confidence in them as a professional. It can also lead to your clients to feel like they aren’t getting good customer service and that you are trying to rack up billable hours unnecessarily by scheduling calls and meetings. A better approach that allows your staff a bit of autonomy but ensures clear boundaries can make for a happier employees and clients.

Regularly check in with your staff and ask them about the conversations they are having with your clients when they contact them for scheduling meetings and other administrative issues. Find out what kinds of questions your clients are usually asking and what your staff is saying in response. Role play with them and offer suggestions on how they can make the client feel heard while still deflecting the questions that can only be answered with legal advice. Coach them on how to describe a typical process or procedure while still making it clear that they are not setting an expectation for a case outcome. Discuss the types of things that a client may share that you want brought to your attention immediately and the topics that are always off limits with clients.

Paralegals are legal professionals and they can be a huge asset in making your clients have a positive experience with your practice. They can step in and handle many things when you are not available for your clients, but there are many things they cannot handle for you. Empowering your paralegal to do the things that they can while having clear boundaries for the things they can’t do could be an important part of making your practice a success.

Published in AAC, Best Practices, Lawfirm, Professional