Do Attorneys Still Practice Law? Are Paralegals Now Practicing Law Instead?

Back in 1977 when I began working for law firms, there was no such thing as a paralegal.  Instead, we were called: legal secretaries.  This is because the attorney studied the law, looked up the law in their office law books and became their own law clerk.  In fact, the attorney learned every aspect of the field of law they chose to operate in and most of them enjoyed it.   By knowing the law they were able to advise their clients properly and write their own pleadings and briefs.  After writing or dictating their pleading or brief, this was given to a legal secretary and we typed out the legal document.  We did not practice law in any manner and we respected the attorney for his or her knowledge.

But in the mid-1980s some attorneys began assigning jobs to their legal secretaries that were similar to what a law clerk performs today.  The problem was that they did not raise their salary and continued to pay them a legal secretarial wage.  The legal secretaries revolted and developed the paralegal role; which was a higher paying position than a legal secretary.

I was one of the few who revolted against this concept.  I believed that attorneys should continue practicing law and legal secretaries should continue in their role and not practice law, but as you know, this is not what happened.  Instead the paralegal role was developed and today we have non-attorneys who are committing unauthorized practice of law, but it is disguised due to the fact the paralegal is employed by an attorney.

Over the years, a large segment of attorneys continued to get lazy.  Many of them depended on their non-attorney staff to know the law and keep them informed of any changes.  These types of attorneys lost the desire and the passion to know the law and practice it with a diligent effort to protect their clients and win their cases.  How do I know this?  I have worked for many of them and I see the increase of this behavior, especially in the bankruptcy field.

Prior to 2005, the bankruptcy field was filled with excellent attorneys who knew the bankruptcy law inside and out.  (I was trained by many of these attorneys.) If an attorney wanted to practice in the bankruptcy arena, he or she would work as a type of apprentice for one of these experienced bankruptcy attorneys and learn the bankruptcy law inside and out also.

But when rumors of the changes in the bankruptcy law began to surface, a large number of these experienced bankruptcy attorneys transitioned into another area of law.  You can look up arguments that attorneys published on the internet from that time period and you will see all the various reasons they opposed the new 2005 bankruptcy law.  Their arguments are too numerous to cover in this short article so I will leave the research to those who are interested in this particular topic.

However, the fact remains that when a large number of experienced bankruptcy attorneys left the field, this opened the field for many new attorneys who did not have this experience.  The number of bankruptcy cases did not stop; in fact, they increased.  And this increase caused many attorneys to open up practices and have little time to learn their bankruptcy laws.  Instead, a large number of them relied on their non-attorney staff to know this information which was the biggest mistake an attorney can make.

How do I know all this?  Not only have I worked in the legal field since 1977, but during the past 90 days I have came into contact with two bankruptcy attorneys who demanded that I know their specific state exemption codes in order to prepare their petitions.  When I argued that the attorney should practice law and know their own exemptions they became angry and fired me.  Both of these attorneys were young (under 40) and both of these attorneys were hard driven to make money, not practice law.

Personally, I find this situation very sad.  I hope that an experienced bankruptcy attorney will read this article and write other articles for legal magazines that stress the importance of why attorneys should practice law and not depend on their non-attorney staff to do the job for them.  Here are just a few of the problems that could develop for a law firm that bases their practice on these principles:

**  The attorney cannot possibly represent and advise their client properly.  Sure, they can make it appear to the client that they are knowledgeable in the law, but they will overlook loopholes that could benefit the client and loopholes the attorney does not take advantage of for their clients protection.

**  The attorney will show his or her ignorance of the law when they go to the 341 Meeting or interact with other attorneys who do know the law.  For example, bankruptcy trustees are very smart.  They process hundreds (perhaps thousands) of bankruptcy cases per year and they know the bankruptcy law inside and out.  A trustee can look at a bankruptcy petition and pick out the flaws.  When they question the attorney, they know from their response if they know the law or not.

Note:  I worked for one attorney who actually had a system of filing his petitions on certain days of the week so he could be assured of getting Trustees assigned to the case who did not give him a hard time.  In my opinion, if the attorney knew the bankruptcy law, he would not need to hand pick Trustees; he would be able to argue his clients case with any Trustee and gain a solid reputation in the court.

**  The attorney will lose the passion and feeling of accomplishment that occurs when they know the law.  There is no better feeling when you are trying to protect a client from wrongdoing by the opposing party and you find the loophole you need to win your case.   I have worked for attorneys like this, and they are so overjoyed and happy, we have had office parties to celebrate these victories.

Summary

If you are an attorney who depends on your non-attorney staff to know the law, stop this behavior now.  Join groups at your local bar association and mentor with experienced attorneys in your field who know the type of law you practice.  Seek them out, hang out with them, and study the law over and over again until you know it well.

If you are not an attorney, make sure you know the type of attorney you hire or work for.  One way to know this is to ask the attorney a series of questions.  If they cannot rapidly answer you (and need to make a call or consult with someone else to find the answer) be very leery of this attorney.

Perhaps in recognizing this problem and not tolerating this behavior from attorneys who choose not to practice law, the problem will not become so rampant in our society.  Thank you for doing your part.

2 Responses to “Do Attorneys Still Practice Law? Are Paralegals Now Practicing Law Instead?”

  • Ross S. Heckmann:

    Thanks for publishing this. What’s next? Will pilots have more modestly paid assistants actually fly the planes instead of flying the planes themselves?

    It would be difficult to exaggerate how strongly I deplore “attorneys” such as those you have described. I do not believe that they should be hanged, for at least two reasons: (1) I don’t believe in capital punishment, and (2) hanging is too good for them (kidding!) It is my (vain) hope that scumbags such as those you have described will eventually first be turned over to the State Bar, then compelled to disgorge their unearned fees, then lose their license to practice law (since apparently they couldn’t be bothered practicing it themselves anyway), then, convicted of the unauthorized practice of law (by forcing unlicensed persons to practice law in their place), then sent to prison, and finally, thrown to the wolves. Well, everything except the last item. (But perhaps when they get out of prison, they should be forced to serve a period of exile in Siberia!)

    Thanks again for publishing this.

  • Patricia:

    This issue does not only apply to bankruptcy attorneys. I have been Legal Secretary/Assistant in a law office since 1970s also and find it to be true of most younger attorneys, especially past few years. I remember the time I was asked to draft a complaint and given NO information, I was supposed to know the meat of this pleading. And when asked by another attorney about one of HIS clients and didn’t know the answer he quite assuredly told me I was supposed to be familiar with his clients (this was two months into the job working with him). Thank you for the article. Made me realize I’m not going crazy after all.