The Role of Non-Lawyers in the Legal System
In Illinois, only a lawyer licensed by the state can give legal advice. Anyone else who attempts to do so may be committing the unauthorized practice of law. However, there are other professionals who are involved in the legal profession. It is helpful for the public to be aware of their role.
- "Paralegals" are trained professionals who perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts. They work under the direct supervision of a lawyer or lawyers. As non-lawyers, they may not work independently or alone. If, for example, a paralegal were to offer to do something as simple as help you complete a legal form, that may be considered the unauthorized practice of law.
- A "notary public" is another professional who is tangentially involved in the legal profession. Some people, especially those from certain countries, believe that a notary public is a practicing lawyer. Many countries have notaries public who have the authority to assist in legal matters; however, in the USA, they do not. In this country, notaries public are only allowed to witness the signing of important documents and administer oaths. The documents are notarized to ensure that they are properly executed.
- "Mediators" can provide a valuable service to help settle disputes. They are neutral, impartial parties hired to assist the feuding parties in reaching a voluntary, mutually satisfactory settlement of their dispute. Mediators are sometimes, but not always, licensed attorneys. If a mediator is not licensed to practice law, he or she cannot provide legal services. If you and another party agree to use a mediator to reach a settlement, and if the matter is of a serious nature, you may wish bring the settlement agreement to a lawyer to ensure fairness and legality.
- Another source of legal advice is "storefront operations," which typically sell blank legal forms. Advertisements tout them as an inexpensive alternative to hiring a lawyer, but they should be used with caution. If you purchase a form or forms at a storefront type of operation, and you fill them out to the best of your abilities, you are representing yourself, which is legal. If another person tells you what form to use, or attempts to guide you in your responses to requests for information on the forms, they are practicing law illegally and should be reported to the state's attorney's office in your county or to the Illinois Attorney General.
- Not surprisingly, many people turn to the Internet for legal advice. While the Internet may be a wonderful research tool, it has its limits. If you are looking for specific legal information, make sure the website you are relying upon contains information written by a lawyer, is based on Illinois law, and that the site has been recently updated. The law changes all of the time.
Note: This information was prepared as a public service by the Illinois State Bar Association. Every effort has been made to provide accurate information at the time of publication. For the most current information, please consult your lawyer. If you need a lawyer and do not have one, visit our lawyer referral page.
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