Preparing Pleadings and Other Filings for an Unrepresented Opposing Party
Opinion rules that a lawyer may not prepare pleadings and other filings for an unrepresented opposing party in a civil proceeding currently pending before a tribunal if doing so is tantamount to giving legal advice to that person.
The Ethics Committee recently received several inquiries on whether a lawyer may prepare a pleading or other filing for an unrepresented opposing party in a civil proceeding. There are a number of rules and ethics opinions that address this issue, but not collectively. The purpose of this opinion is to provide guiding principles for when a lawyer may prepare a pleading or other filing for an unrepresented opposing party.
This opinion is limited to the drafting of pleadings and filings attendant to a proceeding that is currently pending before a tribunal (as that term is defined in Rule 1.0(n)), and to the drafting of any agreement between the parties to resolve the issues in dispute in the proceeding including a release or settlement agreement. The principles do not address the drafting of documents necessary to close a business transaction or other matters that are not the subject of a formal proceeding before a tribunal. “Pleading or filing” is used throughout the opinion to include any document that is filed with the tribunal and any agreement between the parties to settle their dispute and terminate the proceeding.
Survey of Rules and Opinions:
Rule 4.3(a) provides that, in dealing on behalf of a client with a person who is not represented by counsel, a lawyer shall not give legal advice to the person, other than the advice to secure counsel, if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the interests of such person are or have a reasonable possibility of being in conflict with the interests of the client.
Comment  to Rule 4.3 clarifies that Rule 4.3 does not prohibit a lawyer from negotiating the terms of a transaction or settling a dispute with an unrepresented person. As long as the lawyer explains that the lawyer represents an adverse party and is not representing the person, the lawyer may inform the person of the terms on which the lawyer's client will enter into an agreement or settle a matter and may prepare documents that require the unrepresented person's signature.
CPR 296, which was adopted in 1981 under the Code of Professional Responsibility which was then in effect, opines that a lawyer may not send to or directly make available to an unrepresented defendant an acceptance of service and waiver form waiving the right to answer and to be notified of the date of trial. However, a lawyer may send to a defendant a form solely for acceptance of service. See CPR 121.
RPC 165, adopted in 1993, states that, “[i]n order to accomplish her client's purposes, the attorney may draft a confession of judgment for execution by the adverse party and solicit its execution by the adverse party so long as the attorney does not undertake to advise the unrepresented party concerning the meaning or significance of the document or to state or imply that she is disinterested.” The opinion continues:
[a]lthough previous ethics opinions, CPRs 121 and 296, have ruled that it is unethical for a lawyer to furnish consent judgments to unrepresented adverse parties for their consideration and execution, there appears to be no basis for such a prohibition when the lawyer is not furnishing a document which appears to represent the position of the adverse party such as an answer, and the lawyer furnishing a confession of judgment or consent judgment does not undertake to advise the adverse party or feign disinterestedness. CPRs 121 and 296 are therefore overruled to the extent they are in conflict with this opinion.
2009 Formal Ethics Opinion 12 rules that a lawyer may prepare an affidavit and confession of judgment for an unrepresented adverse party provided the lawyer explains who he represents and does not give the unrepresented party legal advice; however, the lawyer may not prepare a waiver of exemptions for the adverse party.
2002 Formal Ethics Opinion 6 provides that the lawyer for the plaintiff may not prepare the answer to a complaint for an unrepresented adverse party to file pro se. The basis for this holding is also the prohibition on giving legal advice to a person who is not represented by the lawyer.
The survey of the existing opinions demonstrates that some pleadings or filings that solely represent the interests of one party to a civil proceeding may be prepared by a lawyer representing the interests of the opposing party.
However, because of the prohibitions in Rule 4.3, a lawyer may not draft a pleading or filing to be signed solely by an unrepresented opposing party if doing so is tantamount to giving legal advice to that person. A lawyer may draft a pleading or filing to be signed solely by an unrepresented opposing party if the document is necessary to settle the dispute with the lawyer’s client and will achieve objectives of both the lawyer’s client and the unrepresented opposing party. Pursuant to Rule 4.4(a), which prohibits the use of “means” that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, when presenting a pleading or filing for execution, the lawyer must avoid using tactics that intimidate or harass the unrepresented opposing party.
In applying these guiding principles, a lawyer must avoid the overreaching which is tantamount to providing legal advice to an unrepresented opposing party. The lawyer should consider whether (1) the rights, if any, of the unrepresented opposing party will be waived, lost, or otherwise adversely impacted by the pleading or filing, and the significance of those rights; (2) the pleading or filing solely represents the position of the unrepresented opposing party (e.g., an answer to a complaint); (3) the pleading or filing gives the unrepresented opposing party some benefit (e.g., acceptance of service to avoid personal service by the sheriff at the person’s home or work place); (4) the legal consequences of signing the document are not clear from the document itself (e.g., the hidden consequences of signing a waiver of right to file an answer in a divorce proceeding has hidden consequences); (5) the pleading or filing goes beyond what is necessary to achieve the client’s primary objectives; or (6) the pleading or filing will require the signature of a judge or other neutral who can independently evaluate the pleading or filing. If a disinterested lawyer would conclude that the unrepresented opposing party should not agree to sign the pleading or filing under any circumstances without advice of counsel, or the lawyer is not able to articulate why it is in the interest of the unrepresented opposing party to rely upon the lawyer’s draft of the document, the lawyer cannot properly ask the unrepresented opposing party to sign the document.
Applying the guidelines and considerations above leads to the conclusion that a lawyer may prepare the following pleadings or filings for an unrepresented opposing party: an acceptance of service, a confession of judgment, a settlement agreement, a release of claims, an affidavit that accurately reflects the factual circumstances and does not waive the affiant’s rights, and a dismissal with (or without) prejudice pursuant to settlement agreement or release. However, prior to obtaining the signature of the unrepresented opposing party on the pleading or filing, the person must be given the opportunity to review and make corrections to the pleading or filing. It is recommended that the pleading or filing include a written disclosure that indicates the name of the lawyer preparing the document, and specifies that the lawyer represents the other party and has not and cannot provide legal advice to the unrepresented opposing party except the advice to seek representation from independent counsel.
A lawyer should not prepare on behalf of an unrepresented opposing party a waiver of right to file an answer to a complaint, an answer to a complaint, or a waiver of exemptions. A waiver of notice of hearing should only be prepared for the unrepresented opposing party if the lawyer is satisfied that, upon analysis of the considerations indicated above, the lawyer is not asking the unrepresented opposing party to relinquish significant rights without obtaining some benefit.
Neither of the above lists of pleadings or filings is intended to be exhaustive. Before determining whether a pleading or filing may be prepared for an unrepresented opposing party, the lawyer must conclude that she is able to comply with the guiding principles above.