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R.I. Supreme Court Holds Non-Lawyers May Represent Parties in Labor Arbitrations


The Rhode Island Supreme Court has held that the long standing practice of unions being represented in public sector labor arbitrations by business agents and staff representatives does not constitute the unauthorized practice of law – at least for now.

In re Little Compton, __ A.2d __ (R.I. 2012) arose from a complaint filed by Little Compton against Local 3957 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, alleging that that the union had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law because a non-lawyer business agent had represented the union at a labor arbitration hearing. 

The Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law heard the Town’s complaint and concluded that a technical violation of the statute may have occurred.  However, because lay representation was common practice, the Committee petitioned the Rhode Island Supreme Court for guidance.  The Court invited amici curiae, or friend of the court, briefs from interested parties.

James Musgrave and Richard Peirce of Roberts, Carroll, Feldstein & Peirce submitted a brief on behalf of the American Arbitration Association (the “AAA”), which took the position that representation by lay persons in labor arbitrations should be allowed.  

The AAA’s brief argued that mandating attorney representation in labor arbitrations would undermine the ability to resolve their disputes in a cost effective and efficient manner.  The AAA noted that arbitration was intended to be party driven and that there was a long history of non-lawyer representation of both union and management.  Indeed, commentators and scholars had criticized the increasing use of lawyers in labor arbitrations. 

The AAA also provided the Court with data showing how common the practice of non-lawyers representing parties in labor arbitrations was.  Finally, the AAA contended that the public policy considerations which support rules on the unauthorized practice of law (i.e. protecting an unwary public from incompetents and charlatans) were not present in the context of labor arbitration because the parties were using their own employees, not third parties, to represent them at the arbitration.  Moreover, these employees were often in a better position to represent their employers then an outside lawyer because of their familiarity with the common law of the shop. 

The Court considered these arguments and also reviewed how other states with similar statutes had addressed the issue.  Ultimately, the court concluded that “although the conduct involved in this case may be the practice of law pursuant to the language of § 11-27-2, because of the long-standing involvement of non-lawyer union employees at public grievance arbitrations, we will not limit this involvement at this time.”   

However, the Court noted that its reluctance to do so was in part because only three of the five justices were able to hear the case.  Justice Indeglia writing for the Court explained that “We may in the future, however, and under the supervisory powers of the Court and with the full Court participating, decide the generic issue of non-lawyers participating in public grievance arbitrations.” 

The Court’s opinion can be found in full here.

Roberts, Carroll, Feldstein & Peirce is a full service law firm founded in 1971.  The firm’s continued success and growth are attributable to a philosophy of exceeding clients’ expectations and earning their long-term loyalty by offering practical legal solutions with proven business acumen for a reasonable fee.