Pa. high court institutes rules change barring aides to appellate court judges from practicing law

By Jon Campisi | Aug 27, 2013

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has instituted a rules change that bars

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has instituted a rules change that bars

the practice of law by aides to appellate court judges.

The new rule states that no personal staffers, including law clerks, administrative assistants or secretaries, employed by an appellate court or any judge shall practice law before any court or tribunal of the commonwealth.

The change does allow for such a person to act pro se and perform routine legal work “incident to the management of the personal affairs of the person or a member of the person’s family, as long as the work is performed without compensation and does not involve the entry of an appearance on behalf of the family member in a court or other tribunal.”

The rule also doesn’t apply to pro bono activities for which the person is not compensated.

The move came in the wake of a controversial matter involving Justice Seamus McCaffery in which the jurist’s wife apparently collected attorney referral fees from a law firm while serving as her husband’s chief clerk.

In its per curiam order, the high court didn’t elaborate on the reason for the change, but many in legal circles suspect it was spurred the McCaffery situation.

The controversy involving McCaffery stemmed from a since-disclosed hefty $800,000 referral fee that was paid to the justice’s wife, Lise Rapaport, for work she referred to other lawyers, according to local media.

News reports stated that federal authorities have also subpoenaed the law firms that paid the referral fees to Rapaport, who has reportedly worked in McCaffery’s chambers for more than 10 years.

Referral fees, the practice of compensating attorneys who forward work prospects to other lawyers, is legal in Pennsylvania.

Lynn Marks, the executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, called the recent move by the high court a “commonsense change to the rules.

“It makes good sense to prevent court employees from practicing law in most cases,” Marks said in a statement. “This change is a good step toward clarifying what court employees can and cannot do. It is surprising that a rule such as this was not already in place.”

Prior to the change, only prothonotaries, their deputies, chief clerks, and others employed in a prothonotary’s office were barred from practicing law in Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, a prothonotary is the chief clerk in civil courts.

As for the McCaffery issue, the justice’s attorney, Dion G. Rassias, previously told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Rapaport was not engaging in the practice of law by making the referrals to the handful of law firms.

The newspaper also quoted Chief Justice Ronald Castille as saying that the majority of the high court viewed acceptance of referral fees as a form of practicing law.

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