Poll: Would you see a non-lawyer for simple legal issues?

I’m embroiled in a debate here about the practice of law by lawyers vs. paralegals, and am curious to see what the Doper public thought. Hence - a poll!

Question - Would you go see a paralegal, instead of a lawyer, for help with a simple problem, if it would save you substantial money? In the case we’re discussing in GD, it’s a simple bankruptcy for $300 for a paralegal vs. $1200 for a lawyer, but it would also apply to simple things like drafting a will, transferring real estate or a quickie divorce.

You’ve poisoned the well a bit with your choices. I chose the fourth, but not because I think only lawyers can understand the law. I just don’t believe things would probably be ok with a paralegal. I’m a lawyer and I would still hire a lawyer.

Yeah, what about choice #6: “No - only lawyers can be sued (in any useful way) for legal malpractice.”

I wonder if you think, economically, this is a very tenable system. Why would paralegals charge so little when the market-clearing rate is apparently much higher? Would attorneys stay in the “simple bankruptcy” game if paralegals were capturing all that business with their bargain-basement prices? And if not, as they probably would not, where would future “simple bankruptcy” paralegals come from? After all, they couldn’t come from the firms, since the firms no longer have that practice area.

You seem to base your notion of the origin of attorneys’ fees on the long discredited “labor theory of value”—namely, that prices are set by summing up the cost of the factors of production (in this case, law school tuition). They are not. Prices are determined by the interplay of supply and demand; if the market-clearing rate for simple bankruptcies were not high enough to allow the practitioner to recoup the cost of her education, she would go into a different practice area or leave the practice of law altogether. Over time, supply would contract and those left in simple bankruptcy (i.e., those whose comparative advantage lies in that practice area) would be able to change an equilibrium fee (one that balances their revenue with their costs).

There is nothing monopolistic about a regulated bar. There are perhaps more firms in law than in almost any other profession; accordingly it’s about as good a model of competition as you’ll ever see.

Kimmy_Gibbler, Esq.

I’ve used paralegals, legal assistants, and non-profit groups using law students for minor things, things where I’m doing most of it myself but need a little guidance on procedure.

For the big things, I’ve hired actual attorneys

I’m not making a choice because it really depends. If no substantial money were at stake and I wanted simply to get out of doing a bunch of paperwork for something unavoidable right now, maaaybe.

From my layman’s perspective, though, I think of it kind of like insurance: I’m not paying for a paralegal with the assumption that “it’ll probably be OK”, because if I’m going on operate on that basis, then why pay for such a service at all? Likewise, not much point in paying even a nickel for Billy-Bob’s Corner Life Insurance (est. 2008) if I just assume that I’m not going to die. As Chris Rock would put it, “in-sur-ance” is really “in-case-shit” happens.

That’s a good point. How would professional liability premiums affect the bottom line prices stated by the OP?

One thing I have noticed in my practice is that many times, seemingly-simple matters often call upon a knowledge of other areas of law if things don’t go as planned. A debt action, for example, can touch upon contract and personal property law; a real estate transaction that goes wrong can require a good knowledge of real property and contract law; and I’m aware of at least one landlord-tenant matter that required a basic knowledge of criminal law and procedure. It is true that in the other thread, the OP suggested that the paralegal would know when to turn the matter over to a lawyer, but I’d suggest that any such problems may not be apparent or have even arisen when the paralegal starts with the matter–in most matters, there are two parties, and while you generally know where your client wants to go and how he or she wants to get there, the other side can be unpredictable in its actions. Bringing a lawyer up-to-date on a file that has gone wonky is going to require a lot of (expensive) time, thus negating any cost savings.

Not saying that what the OP is suggesting couldn’t be done, mind; but I think there are many things to be sorted out before a paralegal could be issued any sort of license to practice even “simple” matters.

I voted “No, but what if it’s not okay,” etc., but it would depend largely on the specific situation. For a will? Probably. For a bankruptcy? Probably not. Would also depend on the jurisdiction.

It’s an oft-repeated maxim that every experienced paralegal thinks they can do their bosses’ job, and that includes me. Is it true? Probably not in most cases.

This exactly. I’ve hired lawyers for my will and to purchase both of my homes, even though as a lawyer I have training in both of these areas. They are not, however, my areas of expertise. If I’m going to hire representation, I’ll hire an actual lawyer.

As a former criminal defense attorney who now doesn’t practice law at all, I wouldn’t try to handle anything more complex than a parking ticket on my own behalf. There area areas fo the law I had to learn, like wills and estates, that I never once used in actual practice, and I wouldn’t trust my own recollection. And even if my recollection was perfect, I wouldn’t know anything about the actual practice, as opposed to the academic theory.

And even in areas that I did use in practice, I wouldn’t try to represent myself. (I would almost certainly have to stop myself from being an annoying back-seat driver of a client, admittedly)

**Spoons **and **Bricker **articulated why I would want an actual lawyer. (And I’m a lawyer as well.)

Wow! I’m amazed at the percentage of people who voted “yes.” How scary - for you. We used to have a saying in my office about legal issues and looking for a bargain: you can pay me now or pay me more later.

Tons of our work was trying to undo what shouldn’t have been done in the first place because the client wanted something on the cheap. And believe me, it’s way more expensive to try to undo stuff. Okay, often everything will work out just fine, so I guess the issue is how big a gambler are you?

And I have known many bright, qualified and experienced paralegals, but none that I would want to do legal work for me without the benefit of supervision by a lawyer.

I suspect you may be overestimating the number of people who have ever actually needed* a lawyer.

*As in hired one, not as in should have hired one.

It seems like the paralegal would be competing not just for people who hire lawyers, but also for people who would otherwise not take action (e.g., people who don’t have wills), who would otherwise represent themselves, or who would accept the risk of not being able to sue for legal malpractice.

I might do it for a will. There’s not that much at stake, and in any case if stuff hits the fan, I’ll be too dead to care.

I seemed to recall that paralegals are able to practice much like the OP describes in Ontario, so I checked. Sure enough, paralegals in Ontario can handle certain things without being overseen by a lawyer.

The list of what an Ontario paralegal can do is finite, however. According to the Law Society of Upper Canada (Ontario’s bar association) in this letter (warning PDF), Ontario paralegals can only provide legal services to clients:

– In a proceeding in the Small Claims Court.
– In a proceeding under the Provincial Offences Act in the Ontario Court of Justice.
– In a proceeding under the Criminal Code before a summary conviction court where permitted by the Criminal Code.
– In proceedings before tribunals established by the federal or provincial governments.

See the letter for what paralegals are specifically prevented from doing.

But note also that this does not mean that Ontario paralegals can practice in an unregulated fashion. From this page of the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, announcing the change allowing paralegals to practice:

(Emphasis mine.) Not sure if this is all the kind of thing that the OP is looking for. But I’d say that this kind of regulation does provide for a degree of consumer protection. And, together with the list of permitted/non-permitted functions and the oversight by the bar association, the described regulation would seem to address some of the issues we’ve been discussing in this thread. I’m still unsure if I’d agree a paralegal should be doing such things, but it does seem that Ontario is trying to put provisions in place that would deal with problems before they occur and address them somehow when they do occur, which was one of our concerns.

I wouldn’t hire a nurse to do my appendectomy, either.

This is exactly what I was thinking about - do you know what kind of fees a paralegal charges versus a lawyer?

No, I don’t. A quick survey of the FAQs of Ontario paralegal firm web sites has resulted in answers ranging from “about a third” to “about half” of what a lawyer charges. They don’t get any more specific though; and since lawyers don’t all charge the same, I’d interpret those estimates broadly. This site specializes in traffic ticket defences, and they say their rates “range from $20.00 to $2000.00 depending on your charge and the location.” But that’s the most specific I can find, unfortunately.

True dat. But I’d let nurses and med techs give me my immunizations, check my blood pressure, draw my blood and test my cholesterol levels, tell me what diet and other changes would be advisable if my overall or bad cholesterol numbers are too high, etcetera.

As a layman, I’d intuitively include all of this as part of the practice of medicine.

Similarly, there’s a hell of a lot of nuts-and-bolts stuff I’d trust a paralegal to do. The lawyer doesn’t know the route a particular piece of paper has to take through a courthouse, but the paralegal or legal secretary does. One of them would know what they’re looking for on which line of that piece of paper, but the lawyer wouldn’t.

Would I want a paralegal representing me in court if either my freedom or nontrivial amounts of money were at stake? Hell, no. But writing a will to leave everything to my wife if she survives me, and in trust for the Firebug if she doesn’t, sure. I was a paralegal once, and that’s the sort of thing I could have done back then, though a lawyer would have looked it over. So I have no reason to believe a reasonably competent paralegal couldn’t do the same now.

OTOH, I’ve had the experience, since my paralegal days, of taking a document involved in a property transfer to a recommended lawyer for his review, and he basically said it was fine and didn’t have any comments at all, ignoring a plethora of problems that even I could see. So there’s nothing magic about getting a lawyer involved. There are plenty of fuckup lawyers out there.

It depends. For example, my ex-wife and I handled our divorce ourselves. If there was something in the shitstorm of paperwork I didn’t understand, I’d have had no problem talking to a paralegal for an answer. If it had been contentious, though, I’d have lawyered up pronto.

For something still simple but a little more complex, like fighting a ticket or some other no jail but possible fine situation, I might ask a para to explain the particulars of the ordinance I was charged under, but even in that situation I’d prefer to have it explained by a lawyer.