Guilt by association: When a few bad actors make the whole profession look bad

A recent story in the Star Tribune’s Whistleblower column highlighted the controversy over the non-lawyer services of Affordable Law Center. The Better Business Bureaus of Minnesota and North Dakota warned the public this month about Affordable Law Center’s “clear pattern of deception on the part of this company.”

Affordable Law Center is not a law firm and the owner is not a lawyer. According to its website, “Affordable Law Center is a debt relief agency providing low cost assistance to those seeking to avoid potentially costly and unnecessary legal fees.” They offer legal planning services including reviewing of legal documents, legal consultation, and the preparation of documents. They can offer the assistance by utilizing administrative and paralegal services. The website claims, “Quite often many standard legal documents dealing with divorce, custody, and simple name changes, can be prepared by a paralegal without incurring the cost of a lawyer or an attorney. “

The website does state that they cannot “provide legal advice and legal counsel is provided by law plan attorneys or resource organization attorneys.” The owner, Edward Jonak does not think he’s doing anything wrong. He believes lawyers are behind the controversy because they are concerned that he can deliver legal services at a lower cost.

Affordable Law Center operates in several states and has been the subject to federal bankruptcy actions in Missouri, Colorado and Wisconsin that resulted in the company and owner being permanently enjoined from offering their services to consumers in those jurisdictions. Minnesota followed last year with an action in U.S. Bankruptcy Court alleging that the owner, Edward Jonak, and his company misled clients in handling bankruptcy matters and provided legal advice constituting in the unauthorized practice of law.

While I have no problem with paralegals involved in helping people receive quality legal services at lower cost (that’s why we have paralegals), I do object when paralegals are portrayed as practicing law without a license. There is room for non-lawyers legal services, ddocument preparers and self-help clinics, but please do not confuse the educated and trained paralegals with those who appear to be practicing law without a license. Its stories such as this one that has people crying for paralegal regulation. Those in favor of regulation feel that it would establish minimum qualifications to be paralegal and provide more control over who can offer legal services. Those against regulation do not see the need or the expense for paralegal regulation since paralegals work under the supervision of an attorney and the cost of regulation might be passed on to the client.

The day may be coming soon where the talk of paralegal regulation is not “should we”, but “when do we.”