Nonlawyer Signing a Lawyer’s Name to a Pleading
Opinion rules that if warranted by exigent circumstances, a lawyer may allow a paralegal to sign his name to court documents so long as it does not violate any law and the lawyer provides the appropriate level of supervision.
Paralegal works in Law Firm. Supervising Attorney A would like Paralegal to sign Attorney A's name to pleadings in the event Attorney A is unavailable to do so. Paralegal would put her initials after the lawyer's signature so it is clear she is signing on the lawyer's behalf. Assume for purposes of this inquiry that Attorney A has either drafted the pleading herself or has closely supervised the form and substance of the pleading drafted by Paralegal.
May Attorney A delegate the signing of the pleadings to nonlawyer staff under these circumstances?
As a general matter, a lawyer should always sign court documents and pleadings and should only delegate the signing of her name to a nonlawyer when the lawyer is unavailable and no other lawyer in the firm is able to do so. Nonetheless, if exigent circumstances require the signing of a pleading in the lawyer's absence, a lawyer may delegate this task to a paralegal or other nonlawyer staff only if 1) the signing of a lawyer's signature by an agent of the lawyer does not violate any law, court order, local rule, or rule of civil procedure, 2) the responsible lawyer has provided the appropriate level of supervision under the circumstances, and 3) the signature clearly discloses that another has signed on the lawyer's behalf.1 The following two rules are relevant to a lawyer's responsibilities under the circumstances.
Rule 5.3 Responsibilities Regarding Nonlawyer Assistants
With respect to a nonlawyer employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer:
. . .
(b) a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person's conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer;
Rule 5.5 Unauthorized Practice of Law
(d) A lawyer shall not assist another in the unauthorized practice of law.
Before permitting a paralegal or other nonlawyer staff member to sign the lawyer's name to any court document, the lawyer must carefully review pertinent case law, local rules, or rules of civil procedure to determine whether such delegation is permissible and therefore, compatible with the lawyer's professional obligations. Rule 5.3 (see above). If, for example, a pleading signed by the paralegal on the lawyer's behalf would be legally insufficient, then the lawyer cannot condone this practice. Nothing herein is intended to opine as to the legal sufficiency of a pleading signed on behalf of a lawyer.
In addition, the lawyer must exercise the appropriate level of supervision to avoid aiding in the unauthorized practice of law. Rule 5.5(d). The preparation of a pleading is the practice of law. G.S. §84-2.1 (2004). Nevertheless, a paralegal may prepare such a document under the close supervision of a lawyer. A lawyer must carefully and thoroughly review both the substance and form of a pleading prepared by a paralegal before filing the document with the court. Likewise, a lawyer may not permit her paralegal to sign the lawyer's name to a pleading, even in exigent circumstances, if the lawyer has not afforded the appropriate level of review and supervision.
Finally, the signature must evidence, on its face, that it is by another's hand to avoid misleading the court.