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The Growing Power of Paralegals: Understanding What Paralegal Can Do Without Attorney.

There Are Tasks Paralegals Can Do Without an Attorney.

I worked for lawyers and law firms as paralegal for quite a few years. I can tell you that nowadays there are things paralegals can do without a lawyer, even practice of law. Let me explain in detail what paralegals can do independently as business.

Paralegals cannot practice law by answering legal questions or representing clients in court. But there are exceptions. Paralegals can independently provide services to attorneys, paralegals can represent clients in some federal and state agencies. Paralegals can be registered document preparers in some states which allow paralegals to freely provide limited legal services to the public without attorney.

As a rule, providing legal services to the public by non-lawyers is the unauthorized practice of law prohibited by rules of the American Bar Association and state bar associations. Therefore, paralegals are non-lawyers and cannot provide legal services to the public without the supervision of an attorney. But there are exceptions to this rule. Later in this article I go over specific states which allow paralegals freely practice law in limited areas.

But the exceptions to this rule are limited services paralegals can perform without a lawyer. So let me tell you, here is the current state of affairs regarding what paralegals can do without a lawyer. I tailored this article to USA rules about independent paralegals. 

ABA Rule About Unauthorized Practice of Law

Can a paralegal answer a legal question? 

The American Br Association (ABA) states that paralegals should avoid unauthorized practice of law. Independently and without supervising, paralegals cannot consult and advise clients (public) on legal matters, on strategy and tactics in a legal case. 

Therefore, paralegals cannot answer a legal question. Because they cannot give their own opinion and interpretation of the law and the client’s legal situation. 

Paralegals cannot represent a client in court.

Paralegals cannot appear on behalf of the client in court. They cannot perform depositions, sign pleadings, or perform most other legal tasks. In short, paralegals cannot engage in the practice of law in the same way as attorneys do. 

Engaging in the unauthorized practice of law can bring disciplinary action against paralegals. It could be hefty fines. In the worst-case scenario, a paralegal could potentially face criminal charges for practicing law as a non-lawyer. 

The paralegals should never present themselves as lawyers. That potentially would be plain criminal fraud. According to the rules, paralegals are often not even allowed to set fees for their work. However, this rule seems to be flexible in exceptional instances when paralegals are permitted to work independently. Read below. 

Paralegals Sometimes Can Work Independently?

Sometimes paralegals can work independently with significant restrictions. In this article, you will read further that paralegals can provide specific legal services alone or as freelancers without a lawyer.

The tasks paralegal can perform without a lawyer mainly relate to document preparation.

Some independent paralegals contract with lawyers who can provide an umbrella under which independent paralegals can work with clients.

Such paralegal usually mentions that they work with that attorney or law firm. Even though they essentially work from their own office.

Under such arrangement, legal ethics rules require lawyers to review such paralegal’s work. Ultimately, any problem will be the attorney’s responsibility under which paralegal allegedly works.

Therefore, most lawyers do not agree to such arrangement unless paralegal works in their office or paralegal has decades of experience. 

On the other hand, there are genuinely independent paralegals performing limited legal services. These are the ones I will talk about in the rest of this article.  

Things Paralegals CAN Do Without a Lawyer

Below I go over legal services that paralegals can provide without a lawyer. 

1. Paralegals Can Provide Legal Services to Attorneys on Independent Basis

Independent paralegals can offer their legal services to attorneys and law firms without any problem. A paralegal performs that service for an attorney.

Therefore, it is implied that the attorney will review the paralegal’s work before ultimately using that work in providing legal services to the client.

Essentially, this is the same setup as when attorney is supervising a paralegal as an employee in a law firm.

Except, here, paralegals do the work from their own home or office without a lawyer. Then they sell work to a lawyer on an independent, contractual, or freelance basis. 

This is the safest route for a paralegal. The caveat with this approach is that lawyers are pretty demanding.

Paralegals must have sufficient skills and experience to negotiate reasonable fees with attorneys. By the way, in this instance, a paralegal can negotiate fees for work performed for a lawyer. 

2. Some Federal and State Agencies Allow Paralegals Instead of Lawyers

Some federal and state agencies allow paralegals to represent clients without a lawyer. This exception probably was enabled to make legal services more affordable.

Plus, agencies usually have more or less clear guidelines and forms that make it easier for a non-lawyer to prepare necessary documents and perform certain acts on behalf of another person.

For example, Social Security Administration allows paralegals in social security and disability matters to represent persons without an attorney. 

Examples of other agencies that allow paralegals to do things without a lawyer are the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Internal Revenue Service, and the US Patent Office.

A paralegal can independently perform the following tasks in the federal agencies: 

  • prepare legal paperwork,
  • fill out forms, 
  • correspond with the agency, 
  • call the agency to inquire about the status of the filed paperwork or forms, if necessary. 

Remember, even then, paralegals cannot advise clients regarding the law, legal consequences of actions or legal strategies to undertake.

3. Paralegals Can Be Independent Document Preparers

Paralegals can independently assist the public in preparing paperwork, filling out forms, and filing them with the agencies mentioned above. Paralegals should not put their signatures instead of clients, though. 

Many states regulate such document preparers. See the sections below for more details. 

Paralegal Can Prepare Immigration Paperwork Without Attorney

Still, such a paralegal is not allowed to consult the client on the law. That means that a paralegal may represent a client who needs to file immigration paperwork, for example.

But such a paralegal still is not allowed to consult about immigration laws and course of action to be taken. 

The same goes for IRS and the patent office. But I would be cautious as issues with USCIS, IRS, or even the US patent office can be complicated.

Any time things can go wrong to the detriment of a client. In such a case paralegal may be hit with a lawsuit. 

4. Paralegals Sometimes Can Represent Clients in Administrative Courts and Agency Proceedings, Hearings

On the other hand, some administrative courts allow paralegals to represent clients in proceedings without a lawyer.

And even more often, paralegals are permitted to represent clients in administrative proceedings or hearings in various government agencies. Often, those proceedings and hearings are essentially administrative courts. 

Administrative proceedings and hearings are less formal and less complicated than legal proceedings in regular courts. Therefore, clients may save money if they hire a paralegal vs. lawyer. It depends on the seriousness of the client’s legal situation.

Note that while paralegals can represent some clients in some immigration or tax courts, for example, they better not. Often even in the same legal case because those matters sometimes are complicated.

Immigration and tax courts may make their own rules allowing paralegals to do a limited representation of a client.  

Usually, administrative courts require independent paralegals to register. Such paralegals must take certain classes, pass exams, or get certified.

Immigration courts may require paralegals to get accredited by a professional organization first. 

Other Federal and State Agencies

Other federal and state agencies may allow a freelance paralegal to perform actions on behalf of the public. Therefore, a paralegal intending to engage in independent work should check with those agencies before attempting to help a client in a relevant matter. 

The Caveat for Administrative Work Paralegal

Still, a paralegal independently representing a client in administrative agencies or administrative court without a lawyer is not allowed to consult the client on the law. How many times I should repeat this to make it clear? The line is is blurry.

And suppose such agency has rules mandating representation by a lawyer and prohibiting same by non-lawyers. In that case, a paralegal acting as attorney in dealing with such agency may automatically engage in the unauthorized practice of law.

Suppose a matter handled by a paralegal on an administrative level gets appealed to a regular court. In that case, the paralegal can no longer act as a representative, and such a person should obtain an attorney. 

5. Bankruptcy Courts Allow Paralegals to Prepare Bankruptcy Petitions

Bankruptcy courts allow paralegals to prepare bankruptcy petitions and file them for the public. Usually, such paralegals must register with the court as bankruptcy petition preparers. 

Preparing a bankruptcy petition by a paralegal without a lawyer may be OK in a case where the client has minimal assets and funds. But for more complicated bankruptcy matters client should get a bankruptcy attorney. 

6. Other Examples of Other Things Paralegals Can Do

Other things a paralegal can do without the supervision of an attorney include things like service of process. Most states allow any adult person to serve the complaint on the defendant. I served a few complaints for lawyers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

Paralegals can interview witnesses of accidents, for example. Usually, they do it for car accident attorneys. 

7. Paralegals May Assist Pro Se Litigant Without Attorney

Pro se litigation is probably a whole separate topic. There are people in litigation who do not want or cannot afford an attorney.

In some states, paralegals may help them with legal research, preparing pleadings, and perform other litigation tasks without a lawyer. But in most states, paralegals cannot do that. 

Litigation is an area where paralegals should be especially careful because litigation is a technically complicated process involving many substantive and procedural law areas.

Litigation is a contest, everything is unclear, and there is no guaranteed outcome. It is elementary to make mistakes in litigation.

This is especially true for a criminal case. A paralegal must keep a very close guard to ensure they do not start engaging in the practice of law. 

A paralegal should either refer such a client to an attorney. Or paralegal helping pro se litigant in litigation should offer only limited services such a doing legal research and helping to prepare form court pleadings. 

8. Paralegals May Assist Litigants in Small Claims Courts

In some states, small claims courts do not allow attorney representation. Then, in some states like California, a paralegal may help small claims litigants prepare small claims. 

In California and few other states, a paralegal may help to prepare a complaint about the plaintiff in small claims court without attorney. Paralegal can perform legal research for any of the the parties in small claims case.

In addition, a paralegal can list things that a small claims court requires a litigant to prepare and file depending on a state.  

Still, we cannot advise on the law in the small claim’s litigation. In short, pre-hearing assistance by a paralegal is often allowed without an attorney or lawyer’s help.

But paralegal cannot appear on behalf of the client. Check your local state small claims rules for paralegal representation. 

9. Some States Allow Practice of Law By Paralegals Without Attorney

In the USA, different states have different rules for paralegals. For example, Arizona and Utah require paralegals who provide legal services to the public without a lawyer to be licensed.

In Arizona paralegal can formally become certified as a Legal Document Preparer (LDP).

In California, a paralegal can register as Legal Document Assistant (LDA). However, both LDP and LDA can independently offer legal services only limited to legal document preparation. 

Washington state went further and allowed paralegals to take a test for Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT). LLLTs are permitted to give legal advice and legal representation in family court proceedings for low-income clients who cannot afford an attorney. 

Utah in 2018 allowed licensed paralegal practitioners (LLPs) to practice law in limited areas by providing legal advice and assistance to clients in debt collection, eviction cases, and certain family law cases. All without supervision of attorney.

The Washington and Utah states allow the actual practice of law by paralegals without lawyers. Both are currently the most liberal states in respect to allowing paralegals to do things without a lawyer. And I hope this is a growing trend among states. 

Nevada allows independent paralegals to prepare legal documents, including litigation pleadings, and even request documents like birth certificates on behalf of the client. 

New York state and the East Coast generally are stricter about limiting such phenomena as an independent paralegal. 

Kansas had special programs for independent legal technicians but decided to discontinue them. 

New Mexico is studying the possibility of allowing independent paralegals to operate as limited legal technicians without a supervising lawyer. That is because New Mexico suffers from a severe lack of lawyers in rural areas. 

But technically, most states allow anyone, including paralegals, to assist other people in preparing documents in self-help matters defined by the government or courts in their rules (and on their websites). 

There you go – times are changing. The above was practically unheard of when I was a paralegal. 

Examples of Unauthorized Practice of Law by Paralegals (Must Avoid)

The balance between legally rendering even limited legal services and unauthorized practice of law by the paralegal is fragile, and the distinction of the line is blurry. Paralegals sometimes get trapped into providing legal services and then get in trouble for it. 

Lawyers are guarding their revenue very tightly. Courts are on their side with enforcing severe restrictions on the practice of law by non-lawyers. 

For example, here is info from one New Jersey case. NJ is stricter about this than some other states. 

The court acknowledged that paralegals typically render certain legal services limited to filling out preexisting forms with information provided by the client.

No legal advice or consultation by a paralegal non-lawyer is allowed on what to say when filling out such forms is permitted under New Jersey law.

In this case, the paralegal did not simply fill out forms on the individual plaintiff’s behalf.

He prepared legal pleadings, gave legal advice and consultation, and provided other legal services in violation of the rules against the unauthorized practice of law. And ungrateful individuals sued paralegals when things did not work out with the legal matter. UPL Opinion 40, 176 N.J.L.J. 1195 (June 21, 2004). 

In many states, paralegals are committing the unauthorized practice of law if conducting real estate closings without a lawyer present. 

Independent paralegal negotiating legal matters such as insurance or contract matters on behalf of a client may be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. Because such acts carry serious legal consequences for a person. 

Do you see the difference now?

The main rule is that paralegals should not interpret the law and should not advise on the legal consequences of clients’ actions. 

They also should not say or do anything on which a client may rely in making decisions about the course of action. Meaning, do not provide any legal advice or oral or written opinion on legal matters on which the clients may base their acts and decisions. 

A paralegal can usually show the client what the law is by printing articles or referring to sources. But cannot interpret what those laws mean for the client or client’s situation. See the difference?

Dangers for Paralegal Serving Public Without a Lawyer

I have met independent paralegals in areas of social security and immigration. Few times paralegals I knew assisted someone to successfully and file fill out bankruptcy petitions. A couple of times, they helped someone close to me with immigration paperwork. 

I helped a friend get back his driver’s license from DMV after he was without a driver’s license for almost 12 years due to some problems in the past. I helped him to get documents in order, write letters to DMV and submit documents.

Technically, that was not the practice of law because I just researched law and prepared paperwork. 

But one time some I knew a paralegal who was asked to help do legal research. She was helping as a pro se litigant precisely in New Jersey. She started by helping that individual prepare a few forms and letters to the administrative agency in one state. 

The individual also asked the paralegal to assist her with her pro se litigation (litigation without a lawyer). The paralegal refused and told her that she was not a lawyer and could not help her. Individual insisted, and she did help to do legal research and to edit a pleading.

The court denied the lawsuit because individual at that point could not file a complaint with the court regarding those matters. 

Out of curiosity, I looked up the name of the opposing person and did a little bit of research on that person on the opposite side. That opposing person turned out to be a famous, rich, and influential public persona. 

If that paralegal engaged in that matter, I could only imagine how that opponent’s super-lawyers would have gone after paralegal. Like sharks.

They would have crushed the paralegal, and that paralegal could get in a hot seat for helping that individual. Assisting that individual with a lawsuit could be unauthorized practice of law with potential liability. 


There are minimal things paralegals can do without a lawyer. However, at all times, an independent paralegal operating without the supervision of an attorney must be very careful to avoid anything that can be perceived as unauthorized practice of law. 

Note: This article is not legal advice, and you should consult your attorney regarding legal questions or issues.  

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