2002 Formal Ethics Opinion 9

January 24, 2003

Delegation to Nonlawyer Assistant of Certain Tasks Associated with a Residential Real Estate Transaction

Opinion rules that a nonlawyer assistant supervised by a lawyer may identify to the client who is a party to such a transaction the documents to be executed with respect to the transaction, direct the client as to the correct place on each document to sign, and handle the disbursement of proceeds for a residential real estate transaction, even though the supervising lawyer is not physically present.


Introduction:

The North Carolina State Bar was asked to reconsider Formal Ethics Opinions 2001-4 and 2001-8. These opinions, together with Formal Ethics Opinion 99-13, rule that competent legal practice requires the physical presence of the lawyer at the closing conference for both a purchase and a refinancing of residential real estate.

This opinion is issued after full consideration and investigation of the issues raised by the entities requesting the review. The opinion supersedes Formal Ethics Opinions 99-13, 2001-4, and 2001-8 to the extent that they are inconsistent with the conclusions expressed herein.

Inquiry:

In connection with a residential real estate transaction, a lawyer is retained to ensure that the documents are properly executed and that the loan and sale proceeds are properly distributed, in addition to other services, if any, that the lawyer is retained to provide. May the lawyer assign to a nonlawyer assistant the tasks of presiding over the execution of the documents and the disbursement of the closing proceeds necessary to complete the transaction?

Opinion:

Yes. The lawyer may delegate the direction of the execution of the documents and disbursement of the closing proceeds to a nonlawyer who is supervised by the lawyer provided, however, the nonlawyer does not give legal advice to the parties.

As is the case with any task that a lawyer delegates to a nonlawyer, competent practice requires that the lawyer determine that delegation is appropriate after having evaluated the complexity of the transaction, the degree of difficulty of the particular task, the training and ability of the nonlawyer, the client's sophistication and expectations, and the course of dealings with the client. Rule 1.1 and Rule 5.3.

When and how to communicate with clients in connection with the execution of the closing documents and the disbursement of the proceeds are decisions that should be within the sound legal discretion of the individual lawyer.1 Therefore, the requirement of the physical presence of the lawyer at the execution of the documents, as promulgated in Formal Ethics Opinions 99-13, 2001-4, and 2001-8, is hereby withdrawn. A nonlawyer supervised by the lawyer may oversee the execution of the closing documents and the disbursement of the proceeds even though the lawyer is not physically present. Moreover, the execution of the documents and the disbursement of the proceeds may be accomplished by mail, by e-mail, by other electronic means, or by some other procedure that would not require the lawyer and the parties to be physically present at one place and time. Whatever procedure is chosen for the execution of the documents, the lawyer must provide competent representation and adequate supervision of any nonlawyer providing assistance. Rule 1.1, Rule 5.3, and Rule 5.5.

In considering this matter, the State Bar received strong evidence that it is in the best interest of the consumer (the borrower) for the lawyer to be physically present at the execution of the documents.2 This ethics opinion should not be interpreted as implying that the State Bar disagrees with that evidence.

Endnotes

1. It is already common for lawyers, exercising their sound legal discretion, to delegate to their nonlawyer assistants certain other tasks in connection with a residential real estate transaction, such as the search of the public records and the recording of documents.

2. Transcript of the investigatory meeting of the Special Committee on Real Estate Closings, June 7, 2002. The transcript of the evidence received at the meeting is available from the North Carolina State Bar upon request.


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