May an attorney help a self-represented party write court papers or prepare a case for trial?
People that cannot afford to retain an attorney, or don’t wish to pay substantial attorneys’ fees, sometimes ask lawyers whether they can help with drafting court papers or with preparing a court argument, for the unrepresented party to then present himself or herself in court. While the person making the inquiry may not realize it, this presents a number of ethical concerns for the attorney, and for the legal system. The so-called “ghostwriting” of court papers by attorneys on behalf of pro se litigants has received increasing attention in recent years, and some observers see it as a partial solution to the high cost of legal services. The Journal of the American Bar Association published an article this month suggesting that some jurisdictions have become more accepting of the practice. The fact remains, however, that most jurisdictions in the United States take a dim view of attorneys ghostwriting court papers for non-lawyer litigants.
The state bar for each state creates ethical rules that bind attorneys practicing in that state, and these ethical rules vary on issues of ghostwriting and the “unbundling” of legal services. Different court systems also may have their own rules regarding the practice. The Federal court system, for example, has a well-established hostility to ghostwriting by attorneys. In Federal court practice, anonymous drafting of pleadings by attorneys for pro se litigants, without the attorney signing the pleadings, can result in suspension or disbarment from practice before the court. Almost ten years ago, the American Bar Association published a formal ethics opinion approving the practice, however. This ABA opinion is not binding on state bar associations, though, and the state authorities that actually regulate the profession generally have been far less open to the practice.
The term “ghostwriting” refers to an attorney representing a pro se litigant, informally or otherwise, and preparing pleadings, motions, or briefs for the litigant that the assisting lawyer does not sign. The Federal courts have expressed great concern about this practice because the attorney seeks to remain anonymous and therefore potentially outside the professional, ethical, and substantive obligations that are imposed on members of the bar when they sign a court pleading. Courts can view this as a deliberate evasion of the attorney’s ethical obligation to the court. When an attorney signs a court submission, he or she is thereby representing to the court that there are grounds to support the assertions made in the submitted paper. The practice of ghostwriting frustrates this obligation by keeping the identity of the attorney who drafted the paper anonymously. In addition, courts often give liberal interpretation to papers filed by self-represented parties, and allowing pro se litigant to benefit from this latitude while actually receiving counsel from an attorney is a disadvantage to an opposing party that may not have the benefit of a ghostwriting. Some courts have also viewed ghostwriting as a misrepresentation by the attorney, which violates an attorney’s professional responsibility to be candid with the court.
Several years ago, Maryland court rules were amended to expressly permit attorneys and clients to contractually agree to a “limited appearance” by the attorney. In a limited appearance, the attorney agrees to appear in a court proceeding for the client only for a limited, well-defined aspect of the case. For example, a client could retain an attorney to represent the client only in the child support aspect of a family law action, but not in the property aspects of the divorce proceeding. The limited appearance must be for a discrete matter or judicial proceeding, and the notice of appearance filed with the court must be accompanied by an Acknowledgment of Scope of Limited Representation signed by the client, specifying the scope of the limited appearance. This rule does not condone ghostwriting by attorneys in Maryland state courts, but it has moved the Maryland bar some distance down the road toward acceptance of unbundled legal services.