Opinion 88-15
(June 1988)

By letter of April 13, 1988, you asked for an opinion of the Professional Guidance Committee as to whether you may continue to accept referrals from a bilingual paralegal, who has referred at least two Korean speaking clients to you. Your inquiry was presented and fully discussed at our regularly scheduled meetings in May and June of 1988. As a result of that discussion, the Committee has determined that, on the facts that you have presented, the Rules of Professional Conduct do not prohibit you from continuing to accept these referrals.

The paralegal in question has accompanied the clients to your office and has translated for the clients. Further, the paralegal charges the clients a fee for interpreting and pre-investigation. You do not compensate this paralegal in any way whatsoever. The paralegal has indicated to you that he gives no legal advice to these clients, nor does he otherwise practice law. You stated in your letter, however, that you have some doubts in this regard.

The following Rule of Professional Conduct, effective April 1, 1988, is applicable to your Inquiry:

Rule 5.5 Unauthorized Practice of Law

A lawyer shall not:

(a) aid a non-lawyer in the unauthorized practice of law; or

(b) practice law in a jurisdiction where to do so would be in violation of regulations of the profession in that jurisdiction.

What constitutes the unauthorized practice of law is a question of law and not of ethics. Therefore, the Committee cannot pass judgment on what does or does not constitute the unauthorized practice of law. However, the Committee focuses on your own conduct and, therefore, on your own assessment of whether the paralegal is practicing law. If you believe that the paralegal is, in fact, practicing law, you can do nothing that can be construed as aiding and abetting that conduct. The Rules of Professional Conduct, however, do not require you to investigate the practices of the paralegal to determine whether any of his conduct constitutes the practice of law. Therefore, to the extent that you can rely on his assurances that he gives no legal advice and that he provides only translation and pre-investigation services prior to referring the client to qualified counsel, you would appear to be able to accept a referral from the paralegal while still complying with Rule 5.5. Of course, the Committee would recommend that you familiarize yourself with the cases in Pennsylvania which discuss the unauthorized practice of law.

Finally, in discussing your inquiry certain of the Committee members pointed to the importance of making legal services available to the non-English speaking public. This Committee feels that rules governing lawyer conduct should tend to encourage rather than discourage practices that would make such services available to non-English speaking persons, to whom our legal system is new and strange, as long as the Rules of Professional Conduct are not breached in the process.

We hope that the foregoing is of value to you in your practice.

The Philadelphia Bar Association's Professional Guidance Committee provides, upon request, advice for lawyers facing or anticipating facing ethical dilemmas. Advice is based on the consideration of the facts of the particular inquirer's situation and the Rules of Professional Conduct as promulgated by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The Committee's opinions are advisory only and are based upon the facts set forth. The opinions are not binding upon the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania or any other Court. They carry only such weight as an appropriate reviewing authority may choose to give it.