Responding to Unauthorized Practice of Law in Preparation of a Deed
Opinion rules a closing lawyer who reasonably believes that a title company engaged in the unauthorized practice of law when preparing a deed must report the lawyer who assisted the title company but may close the transaction if client consents and doing so is in the client's interest.
Buyer/borrower's counsel is preparing for closing. The day prior to closing a draft of a deed is forwarded to buyer/borrower's counsel by ABC Title Company. At or near the top of the draft deed it states in writing, "This deed was prepared by ABC Title Company under the supervision of John Doe, attorney at law." ABC Title Company is not a bank or a law firm. John Doe is not employed by ABC Title Company. Buyer/borrower's counsel believes that the deed is actually being prepared by a nonlawyer employee or independent contractor of the ABC Title Company who then forwards the deed to John Doe for his review and approval. John Doe does not directly employ the nonlegal staff person who prepares the deed, nor is that person an independent contractor hired by John Doe for the purpose of assisting John Doe with the legal work he performs on behalf of his clients.
What are the ethical obligations of buyer/borrower's counsel as to John Doe and ABC Title Company?
No opinion is expressed on the legal question of whether ABC Title Company is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. For the purpose of responding to this inquiry, however, it is assumed that buyer/borrower's counsel reasonably believes that ABC is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
Rule 8.3(a) requires a lawyer who knows that another lawyer has committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects, to inform the North Carolina State Bar or a court having jurisdiction over the matter. Rule 8.3 only requires a lawyer to report rule violations of "another lawyer." There is no requirement under Rule 8.3 to report the unauthorized practice of law by a nonlawyer or company. Nevertheless, Rule 5.5(d) of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits a lawyer from assisting another person in the unauthorized practice of law.
If buyer/borrower's counsel suspects that John Doe is assisting ABC Title Company in the unauthorized practice of law, he should communicate his concerns to John Doe and advise John Doe that he may wish to contact the State Bar for an ethics opinion as to his future transactions with ABC Title Company. If, after communicating with John Doe, buyer/borrower's counsel reasonably believes that John Doe is knowingly assisting the title company in the unauthorized practice of law, and plans to continue participating in such conduct, buyer/borrower's counsel must report John Doe to the State Bar. Rule 8.3(a).
May buyer/borrower's counsel proceed with the closing?
Buyer/borrower's counsel has an obligation to do what is in the best interest of his client while not assisting in the unauthorized practice of law. The lawyer should advise the client of his concerns about ABC's unauthorized practice of law and any harm that such conduct may pose to the client. However, if buyer/borrower's counsel determines that the deed appears to convey marketable title and the client decides to proceed with the closing after receiving his lawyer's advice, buyer/borrower's counsel may close the transaction. See 2007 FEO 3 (lawyer may proceed with representation of city council in quasi-judicial proceeding after advising the council of the legal implications of a nonlawyer appearing before the council in representative capacity). Buyer/borrower's participation in the closing does not further the unauthorized practice of law by ABC Title Company.