Supervision of Paralegal Closing a Residential Real Estate Transaction
Opinion rules that competent practice requires the presence of the closing lawyer at a residential real estate closing conference to explain the documents being executed, answer questions, and advocate for the client or clients. A non-lawyer may oversee the execution of documents outside the presence of the lawyer provided the closing lawyer provides adequate supervision and is present at the closing conference to complete the transaction
Editor's note: This opinion is overruled by 2002 Formal Ethics Opinion 9.
Paralegal is an in-house employee of Attorney A, a real estate lawyer. May Attorney A allow Paralegal to close a residential real estate purchase if Attorney A is not present at the closing?
No. A residential real estate closing, for purposes of this opinion, is defined as the entire series of events through which the ownership of property is transferred from one party to another party. One of the most important events in the typical transaction is the closing conference which occurs at the conclusion of the transaction when the documents are executed in the closing lawyer's office. The closing conference is the primary opportunity that the lawyer has to meet with the parties, to explain the closing documents, to define the client's rights and obligations, and to answer questions. More importantly, the closing conference may be the only opportunity that the lawyer has to intercede when the interests of the clients are threatened. Many, if not all, of these activities involve—and competent representation should require—the giving of advice and opinion upon the legal rights of the clients. The giving of such advice and opinion is the practice of law. See N.C.G.S. §84-2.1.
The duty to provide competent representation and the duty not to assist the unauthorized practice of law must be considered when supervising a non-lawyer. See Rule 1.1, Rule 5.3, Rule 5.5(b), and RPC 183. A non-lawyer does not have the requisite knowledge, skill, or authority to perform the critical advisory and advocacy roles necessary to provide competent representation in a residential real estate closing. Furthermore, a non-lawyer cannot give advice or opinion upon the legal rights of the client. Therefore, a non-lawyer may not close a residential real estate transaction.
May Attorney A allow Paralegal to oversee the execution of the closing documents without Attorney A's presence in the room?
Yes, provided Attorney A is present at the closing conference to explain the documents, define the client's rights and obligations, answer questions, and advocate for the clients, and further provided, the clients are informed that Paralegal is not a lawyer. Paralegal must be instructed on the limitations of his or her role prior to the closing conference and Attorney A must maintain responsibility for the conduct and performance of Paralegal.
Rule 5.3(b) states that "a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over a nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the nonlawyer's conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer." Comment  to the rule adds the following:
A lawyer should give such nonlawyers appropriate instruction and supervision concerning the ethical aspects of their employment…and should be responsible for their work product. The measures employed in supervising nonlawyers should take account of the fact that they do not have legal training and are not subject to professional discipline.