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By: Karen George, FRP
As paralegals, we all tend to learn a thing or two about ethics along the way, either via our paralegal programs, books or from the smart attorneys we work alongside each day. We learn that we must adhere to certain ethical guidelines. We learn that we have personal obligations that must be fulfilled. We know that we cannot enter into the attorney-client relationship with a client; cannot represent them in court (except for in certain administrative proceedings); and above all else, we cannot give legal advice. Without hesitation, we could all readily recite this paralegal ethical trilogy from memory. Yet, everything else outside the scope of those parameters falls into a bit of a “gray” area, leaving some room for interpretation.
In this article, Karen shares some basic information and insights regarding paralegal ethics, along with a few real life scenarios, and an array of helpful links. So, the next time you find yourself in “the paralegal gray,” we hope you’ll remember this article, and navigate that ethicial dilemma with the same resounding level of confidence that Macgyver would display while disarming a pipebomb, in a hurricane, on the front of a jet ski, next to a shark, with a TPS toothbrush! Without further adieu, here’s Karen…
ETHICS. What are yours and why? PROFESSIONALISM. Do you meet the criteria?
I want to take you on a journey of day-to-day paralegalism and its ethical dilemmas. It’s a Friday afternoon (isn’t it always), your attorney is out of the office and there is a pleading that has to be filed today, but it isn’t signed. The attorney says: “Just sign it for me.” An important client calls in with a legal question that he needs answered right now. After so long sitting in your seat as a paralegal – you know the answer. Do you tell the client? Your attorney comes to you with a document that needs to be notarized and it is already signed. The attorney says: “Can’t you just notarize it? I saw him/her sign it.” Plain and simple: you can’t sign the paper, you can’t give legal advice, and no, you can’t notarize the paper.
In each of the above situations, you are faced with an ethical dilemma. You may find yourself thinking: “If I don’t… will the attorney think I am not a team player?” “Will the attorney fire me because I wouldn’t sign his name?” “Will the attorney think I don’t trust him?”
You like your job. You need your job. Jobs are hard to find today. This was your opportunity to be a “paralegal.” So, you waffle, you hesitate, you buckle, or you don’t. You shouldn’t be placed in any of those positions or in a billion other unethical situations, but, it happens, every day, everywhere, in every office. To say differently is simply not the truth. Or perhaps it just hasn’t happened to you…YET. It will happen, it does happen, to all of us – at some point or another in our paralegal careers. How you deal with the dilemma will say what kind of paralegal you are.
So what do you do? How do you deal with this dilemma that could be a fatal, career changing decision? Do you lose your job which was so hard to get that you like so much? Well, the answer is: You don’t do anything unethical. But you say; “I didn’t know!” Sorry, ignorance is no excuse. You may not be able to recite the exact Ethical Code that applies to the particular situation you are faced with but, you have a personal and professional obligation to become familiar with the Code of Ethics which applies to you, as a paralegal.
Every paralegal association has a Code of Ethics. Every Bar Association has a Code of Ethics and an Ethics section. If you don’t know the site to your State’s Bar Association, the American Bar Association has compiled a list which will take you directly to your state’s bar association. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/bar_services/resources/state_local_bar_associations.htm
Ethics & Professionalism:
Ethics and professionalism are an integral part of the legal profession and go hand-in-hand. Ethics and professionalism is what this profession is really about. I know: the law, research, writing, trial, etc., but without ethics and professionalism, the practice of law is Dodge City without a Sherriff.
Webster’s defines ethics as: “the discipline of dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” US Legal, Legal Ethics states: “Legal ethics is the minimum standards of appropriate conduct within the legal profession.” So, how do you know if something is ethical or not? For me my first indicator that “something just isn’t right” is a little voice that says “Wait a minute: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Meaning, it’s not a dog or cat or whatever else someone is trying to tell you “it” is. Sometimes things are not as clear as the duck analogy. Sometimes we are faced with dilemmas, situations we just aren’t sure about. Typically, if you have to ask, it’s because that “little voice inside you” is telling you — look closer — and think before you make the next move.
Because we can’t know everything and things are not always cut and dry, when faced with an ethical question, I suggest that you refer to the links below, which will take you to a host of ethical guidelines for the legal profession and paralegals specifically:
The American Bar Association has a great site on ethics at:
The ABA even has a book on paralegal professional responsibility: “The Paralegal’s Guide to Professional Responsibility” which can be found at: http://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility.html
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) has a code of ethics which can be found at: http://www.paralegals.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=796. NFPA has compiled a list of great links to: ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, ABA State of State Review of Professional Conduct Rules, American Legal Ethics Library, Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers and Legalethics.com
The National Association of Legal Assistants’ (NALA) ethics and professional responsibility Cannons of Professional Conduct and Ethics can be found at: http://www.nala.org/code.aspx
Because we are a diverse unification of states which set their own standards, sometimes what is right in Arizona is not right in Maine and vice versa. Because many paralegals have moved in search of employment, you should take a bit of time and visit the state Bar’s ethics code where you are now working. The ABA has made it easy to access the website for your state’s Bar Association by following the below link. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/bar_services/resources/state_local_bar_associations.html
I’ve now given you a host of places to start your ethics studies. So, the next time that “little voice inside you” is telling you to – look closer – and think before you make the next move – hopefully this article and the above links will help you to arrive at the appropriate, ethical and professional conclusion and to remain the truthful, ethical and professional paralegal you ARE.
“The qualities of a great man are vision, integrity, courage, understanding, the power of articulation, and profundity of character.”
– Dwight David Eisenhower
“There is no such thing as a minor lapse in integrity.”
– Tom Peters
“Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”
– George Washington
Have a most wonderful and ethical day, TPS readers! Upward and onward…duty calls!