Participation in a Witness Closing
Opinion rules that a lawyer may not participate in a closing or sign a preliminary title opinion if, after reasonable inquiry, the lawyer believes that the title abstract or opinion was prepared by a non-lawyer without supervision by a licensed North Carolina lawyer.
Lender is located in another state but provides home loans to North Carolina residents. Lender asks Attorney, a licensed North Carolina lawyer, to close a loan for certain borrowers. Lender indicates that the following services will be required from Attorney: (1) oversight of the execution of the loan documents; (2) acknowledgment by an appropriate witness of the signatures of the borrowers on the documents; (3) recordation of Lender's deed of trust; (4) copying the loan documents without review; and (5) disbursement of the loan proceeds. Lender procures title insurance from an out-of-state title insurance company which issues title insurance binders in reliance upon the notes of a title abstractor. Attorney suspects that the title search was done by a non-lawyer who was not supervised by a North Carolina lawyer.
This type of closing is sometimes called a "witness closing." May Attorney participate in the closing?
No. Rule 5.5(b) provides, "[a] lawyer shall not assist a person who is not a member of the bar in the performance of activity that constitutes the unauthorized practice of law." N.C. Gen. Stat. §84-2.1 defines "practice [of] law" as, among other things, "abstracting or passing upon titles." Attorney must make a reasonable inquiry concerning the preparation of the title search and/or the title opinion. If Attorney believes, after making this reasonable inquiry, that a non-lawyer abstracted the title and/or gave a title opinion on the property without the proper supervision of a licensed North Carolina attorney and this unauthorized practice will be furthered by Attorney's participation in the closing under the conditions prescribed by Lender, she may not participate in the closing. However, Attorney may participate in the closing if Attorney's reasonable inquiry indicates that the statute was not violated.
What duty does Attorney have to the borrowers?
If Attorney's representation is not prohibited by Rule 5.5(b), Attorney's duty to the borrowers is to ensure that her limited role in the closing is well understood and the borrowers agree to this limited role. See Rule 1.2(c). If she represents the borrowers, as well as Lender, she must competently represent their interests even if the objectives of her representation are limited. See Rule 1.1. Competent representation may include disclosure of any concerns that she may have about the preparation of the title opinion and the risks of relying upon the opinion. If Attorney does not represent the borrowers, they must be so advised and told that they should obtain separate legal counsel. See RPC 210. Attorney may represent the borrowers and Lender if she can do so impartially and without compromising the interests of any client. Id.
What duty does Attorney have to Lender?
If Attorney's representation is not prohibited by Rule 5.5(b), Attorney must competently represent the interests of Lender. See Rule 1.1. Competent representation may include disclosure of any concerns that she may have about the preparation of the title opinion and the risks of relying upon the opinion.
Title Insurance Company is located in another state but wants to write policies in North Carolina. Title Insurance Company contracts with a paralegal who is an independent contractor to search titles in North Carolina. Title Insurance Company asks Attorney to sign a preliminary opinion based upon the paralegal's abstract of title and/or preliminary opinion. Attorney has not reviewed the paralegal's title notes and did not supervise the paralegal's title research. May Attorney sign the preliminary opinion?
No, a lawyer has a duty to supervise any non-lawyer who assists her regardless of whether the non-lawyer is an employee of the lawyer, an independent contractor, or employed by another. Rule 5.3 and RPC 216. Execution of a preliminary title opinion that was prepared by an unsupervised non-lawyer is assisting the unauthorized practice of law in violation of Rule 5.5(b).