How Ethical of a Paralegal Are You?

Guest Author, Jenna M. Prosceno

Have you ever been pulled aside at a family gathering by someone needing legal guidance and given your opinion? Have you ever forgotten to disclose in a phone call with a potential client that you are a paralegal and not an attorney? Have you ever notarized something that is already signed that your attorney tells you he/she personally witnessed? Did you ever shop talk with friends over lunch and give too many details about a new client or case? If you have said yes to any of the above, you should probably review the code of ethics for paralegals.

After a while in this profession we come to know important and intricate things that are not common knowledge in the mainstream populace. We may know many answers to seemingly common legal quagmires; however, if we were to answer most of them, coming from a paralegal without a license to practice law, we would cross the line of ethics.

Sometimes we think that we are sharing common sense, or just a matter of fact based on how we have seen the Court decide on the issue in question numerous times before. The truth of the matter is that we more than likely step over ethical boundaries more than we would like to admit.

Many paralegal associations require an ethics CLE credit every two years or so. This is more of a matter of convenience; however taking one per year is never a bad idea. In conjunction, a thorough review of National Association of Legal Assistant (NALA) cannons, as well as the ABA and your State Bar's established rules of conduct should be required reading every 6 months. It may seem a tad drastic, but in the end is your career really worth it not doing this?

What of our personal life? Can things such as our driving record and credit reports play a part in our ethics? Well, having unpaid debts and charge offs while your firm represents financial institutions is a conflict of interest. So would be having a DUI while working as a plaintiff paralegal for a personal injury firm. We can forget that so much of our outside life comes into consideration in this profession, but the same meticulous attention to detail that we use while working our files needs to be applied to our home life. If you find yourself overwhelmed or unorganized in your personal life, schedule some time off to get loose ends in good standing.

When it comes to ethics, one cannot deny the role that professionalism plays into the subject. You cannot have professionalism without ethics, and vice versa because professionalism is actually how ethics is carried out. How we speak as paralegals to other paralegals, counsel, witnesses, client's, or even the filing clerk at the Courthouse all counts towards our ethical responsibility. Professionalism also means doing our work with integrity and transparency, and taking full responsibility for our work product.
In keeping with ethics and professionalism, what then if you observe your firm or your attorney conducting unethical behavior? Is there a duty to the paralegal to report it, or attempt to stop it? To be answered simply, yes. Although we have a life to provide for and a family to support, unethical behavior observed with no attempts to disengage then becomes the paralegal's unethical behavior. Always remember that silence means compliance with what is transpiring, and is just as bad as the unethical behavior. The absolute worst case scenario may mean reporting your firm/attorney to your State's Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Though it may mean being unemployed temporarily, it will mean that you will still be able to be employed as a paralegal in the future.

Bi-Annual Ethics Check-Up:

  1. Read your Paralegal Association and your State Bar Association's Rules of Ethics.
  2. Take a minimum of one CLE per year, each on a different topic as it pertains to you.
  3. Check your language and tone. Are you giving legal advice?
  4. Introduce yourself as a paralegal to clients, potential clients, and to callers at all times.
  5. How is your personal conduct outside of work? (If a camera crew was following you, would you be ok with what you saw upon play back?)
  6. How mindful are you of any "conflicts of interest" in your day to day?

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