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By: Jamie Collins
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill
Looking back, I remember when I received your message to me—the one you sent telling me you may be facing an ethical issue at the firm where you work; one you didn’t believe could be overlooked.
I think any time an experienced paralegal, such as myself, hears the words “ethical dilemma” he or she is led to ponder if it truly is a “real” ethical dilemma the person faces or, more commonly, something that lends itself to being a lesser offense: an interoffice tiff, a grievance, big partner disagreement, bad gossip, bad temperament on the part of a less than pleasant person, or working for someone who makes one’s life a living hell. I would like to pretend these types of things—the real ethical dilemmas—don’t happen, anywhere. And this isn’t something that we, as paralegals, need to be prepared to face. But that would be untrue. These types of things do happen. Not often. But they do happen. And when they do, we must face them. Just as you did.
You told me it was a “real” ethical dilemma. I could tell by the timbre of your words and the fear in your tone it was, in fact, a “real” problem, not an overblown drama or convoluted issue misplaced. While you were not able to share any of the details with me, I do remember at one point asking you, “Well, how bad of an ethical issue is it? Is it really bad? Does it have anything to do with the trust account??? How bad?” While you weren’t sure what you could tell me at the time, you cautiously and professionally (and perfectly, I might add) chose not to reveal much. Ever so little. Nothing breached by way of confidentiality. But enough. With what little was shared, I knew you were walking the gauntlet of ethical hell.
In summary, this is what unfolded (not all know to me initially, but over time):
- Paralegal begins job at a new law firm.
- Fairly quickly, paralegal realizes there are discrepancies with the firm’s trust account. The big kind. Think embezzlement.
- Attorney asks paralegal to sign an affidavit to state that these issues were due to “clerical errors.”
- Paralegal knows this to be untrue and refuses to sign such an affidavit.
- Attorney fires paralegal.
- Attorneys verbally threatens paralegal, stating that he will ruin paralegal and paralegal’s career, if paralegal tells anyone.
- Paralegal reports attorney to the disciplinary commission.
- Attorney follows through on his threats, calling each of paralegals’ future firms and preventing paralegal from remaining gainfully employed for a period of nearly half a year.
- Attorney consistently harasses paralegal, sending threatening texts, messages, and e-mails.
- Attorney tells lies to others about paralegal and starts rumors to tarnish paralegal’s reputation and standing in the legal community.
This was the type of problem no paralegal ever wants to face. A huge ethical violation. You knew it. I did, too. You thought you needed to leave the firm. While at the time, I did not know the depth, nor understand the inherent treachery, of the minefield through which you waded, I agreed with you. You had to go. If it was that bad, and it had anything to do with a firm’s trust account or the word “embezzlement,” you had to go. You had to leave. Immediately. There are certain times in a paralegal’s life when 2-week-notices get thrown into the ditch of the damned. This was one of them.
In this type of situation, you will be tested. Your moral compass will be moved. You will be forced to make hard decisions—the kind that determine whether or not you pay the mortgage, keep the lights on, or feed your family. Say goodbye to your savings account. It will be of the gravest moments of significance to your career and professional life to date. Your decisions will weigh heavily upon you. As will the consequences. No part of it will be easy. Essentially, you will be walking through the legal gauntlet of hell. For months. Make that a lot of months. Actually, make that close to a year.
This is the part of my letter where I’d like to tell you that nothing bad will happen to you. That by doing the right thing: reporting those who need to be reported and sparing those who do not deserve to be victimized, you will be elevated far beyond the fray of a flailing firm and its fall. That you will move on, unscathed. You’ll find a great new job—and fast. That this will cause no harm to your personal reputation. You will face no future issues personally, financially, or otherwise. But that would be a lie.
I know that now.
Those who stand accused will name you, publicly. They will chat about you in local circles. They will threaten you. They will attempt to mar your good name in any way possible. They will call your future bosses to perpetuate lies. The stories told will shift away from the truth and on to you, and all of your newly-manufactured inadequacies; the ones that don’t exist, but were created to cover the most despicable of misgivings under the guise of a license to practice law the day you made the choice to depart the firm and report it. You did the right thing. You did. But you will pay a heavy price. One that will cost you dearly.
Although it may certainly feel like it – your career is NOT doomed. It only feels like it for now.
You did the right thing.
In the end, they will all know it.
But not now.
In time, it will all work out.
I used to lie awake at night thinking about your ethical dilemma. The weight of it bearing down on my soul. I found myself wondering what I would do in the same situation. What any of us would do? Would we be brave enough to throw our paychecks, food, clothes, and mortgages to the wind? I’d like to think we would. We must. It wouldn’t be a choice really – not with trust account issues or embezzlement. Not then.
As I write this, I know that you are slowly making your way around (what you and I both hope to be) the last corner of this hell. Your name is being restored. You are gainfully employed at a new job you love. That mortgage, light bill, and food on the table? Handled. But the price you will pay for being on the right side of things will never feel entirely “right” because turning against one’s boss is an ugly thing. There are times, such as this, when it will be entirely warranted. But it will feel like the worst thing you’ve ever done. Because it will be pretty darn close to that.
What I want you to know is this:
I admire you.
I admire your strength.
I admire your moral integrity.
I admire your tenacity.
I admire your desire to spare others from harm at the fault of an unethical person.
You did the right thing.
Your name will be restored.
Your career will be redeemed.
Those who listened to those tales told against you will feel foolish in the end.
It may never feel like you were treated justly for being a pillar of integrity.
But you are.
You did the right thing.
And I admire you.
To all of the paralegals reading this:
If there is ever a moral misgiving with the way your firm or the attorneys within it handle its trust account—run like hell.
“Keep your head, heels, and standards high.” (Even when others don’t.)
To read one of my past articles that provides a great deal of insight regarding paralegal ethics, rules, and guidelines: Click here
If you’re interested in helping other paralegals who may face this type of an issue in their careers today or in the future, share this post. As always, we welcome your comments.
Thanks for reading!