By: Jamie Collins
Six years ago, when I launched this blog, I had no idea how to be a blogger. I didn’t know how long it would taking to find my “voice” or if I ever would. I had exactly zero followers. (Well, I guess if my dad, mother-in-law, and two coworkers count, then I had a whopping f-o-u-r, straight out the gate.) Today, a lot has changed. I found my voice. There you sit, among many other paralegals across the nation, reading this post. I continue to try to blog about things that actually matter to paralegals and our amazing profession.
I stand here, on the screen before you today, because I have the immense privilege of addressing each of you, individually, and a cross-section of the profession, collectively, in this way. But right along with that, I gotta tell you, I have also earned myself the obligation to do so. When an attorney attacks us – I’m on the screen. When a dedication must be written in support of a person or an important cause – I’m there. If it matters – I want to tell you about it. I typically spin on any topic that piques my interest (or ire) for about four days. If the issue continues to gnaw away at my soul, I write. It is a privilege and an obligation for me to talk to you about things that matter. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when it’s not popular. Even when it’s somewhat controversial. And most importantly, when others don’t seem to be talking about the things that affect our profession at all. Especially then.
Today, I’m here to talk to you about ethics. Not because it’s fun. But because it is a topic that matters. To me. To you (at least it should) and to every paralegal in the United States who cares about the title they proudly carry as a PARALEGAL. To us, that title means something. We earned it. Through dedication, education, work experience, a million impossible tasks, slaying alongside attorneys who are freakishly wonderful and crazy, basking in stress galore, and living out the world’s most epic, career shaping and life-defining moments. It’s a title we hold. We continue to carry ourselves upright, with dignity, professionalism, skill, and pride, each day. We now stand in the middle of the intersection where paralegals and ethics meet, or at least I sure as heck hope we do. Why? Because ethics matter. And no matter who you are or where you sit in the nation, you don’t get to pretend you don’t have the privilege and obligation to care about ethics, because you do.
That said, it’s not always an easy topic to discuss. Some people out there view an ethical evolution—many paralegals believe is downright needed—to be a threat to future expansion for paralegals and the growing role of the LLLT (Limited License Legal Technician). I’m calling bullshit on that one. In my mind, it’s quite the opposite, actually. Turning a blind eye to Rogue Paralegals—any paralegal engaging in conduct that seemingly constitutes the unauthorized practice of law—does not make these types of paralegals, or their ridiculous actions, cease to exist. (We tried that approach. The pretending. The ignoring. We sat quietly on the sidelines for over a year. We said nothing. We watched. Silently. The Rogue Paralegals continued to rise up. And you know what? We decided we would no longer stand down. Not any longer. The time for pretending and ignoring is over.)
In the digital age, social media has given Rogue Paralegals an easy and direct way to reach consumers, other unsuspecting paralegals, and paralegal students with a few keystrokes, to advertise their unethical services, promote their unethical practices (WAY across the ethical lines), and brazenly buck the ethical guidelines in a big way. Rules? What Rules? Guidelines? What are those? How are educated people doing such stupid things? How does a paralegal not know this to be a problem? These are the types of questions many paralegals find themselves asking. Why are they getting away with it? Why should we care? Is this our problem? I mean, really, is it?
That last one is a resounding “yes.” It is our problem. You can like it. You can loathe it. You can even choose to ignore it. But it’s still every paralegal’s problem. Every paralegal leader’s problem. And our profession’s problem.
The time for complacency is over. If you are complacent on this issue, you can go ahead and take a seat next to the Rogue Paralegals sitting over yonder, because as a submissive paralegal unwilling to take a stance, that is the side you now choose through your inaction.
We, as paralegals, will likely be able to do a whole lot more than we are currently doing on a day not too far off. We will have more responsibilities and expanded duties. It is going to happen. The access to justice gap leaves many clients in compromising situations, unserved, unrepresented, and without assistance. Does the access to justice issue need to be addressed? You bet it does. But you don’t just get to decide that you, as a paralegal, are going to step up and address that gap, if you are in a state where non-lawyers are not allowed to solicit legal services to members of the general public (which is darn near all of them, but not quite) in an ignorant act of servitude. As paralegals, we must continue to color within the boundary lines set for us, as paralegals, within each of our respective states, as they are written. Because we work in law. Because that’s just the way it is. You don’t get to pretend the rules, guidelines, and ethical boundaries don’t apply to you. Paralegals are doing some stupid and seemingly rogue things online via their websites and social media channels. This is not okay.
—>And we need to give a damn. <—
As paralegals, we have an obligation not only to look out for those who stand in the profession alongside us—our respected colleagues—but also those who will come after us. The students sitting in classrooms today. The new breed of paralegals that will emerge behind us to blaze a trail we eagerly anticipate, but have not yet seen or walked upon. We must work to light the way for all paralegals: past, present, and future. As proud paralegals, we need to care about the things that matter for our profession. We must not be afraid to speak out and take a stand on issues that affect us. And we cannot simply turn a blind eye or deaf ear to what we see, hear, and what we know to be occurring and wrong. The topic of Rogue Paralegals and the unauthorized practice of law is one of those important issues. It’s not a fun one. There is no party going on here, I assure you. I’m taking a professional hit on this one in the eyes of some. But there is an ethical evolution underway. One small step at a time. The issues have been spotted. Publicly pointed out. Spoken of aloud. You don’t get to pretend you don’t know about it any longer. Rogue paralegals are out there. As to whether you choose to care about this issue, or not, that’s entirely up to you.
While paralegals have no authority over this issue, what we do have is the right to give a damn. To care about the improper types of things we see online perpetuated in our own title and to worry for the students sitting in those classrooms who read these potentially harmful advertisements, posts, and comments made by Rogue Paralegals who hold themselves out as “experienced paralegals.”
While I don’t believe anyone sitting in most of the rooms in which I find myself would take the advice of these Rogue Paralegals, choose to follow in their misplaced footsteps, or engage in their improper business models — Would students? They might. Because experienced “paralegals” are telling them it’s okay to do so. Watch me! I have a business. I’m successful! I have my own clients and no attorney supervising me (in states where that is clearly NOT allowed, which is darn near all of them). Advertise like this. I do! It’s fine!
The implications are real.
From the space each of us now occupies within this profession, we hold a position of privilege. As professionals. As paralegals. As leaders. And as a small piece of the profession, at large. We have the privilege to care about (un)ethical issues, the unauthorized practice of law, and Rogue Paralegals because it matters to our profession. Whether it’s easy, or whether it’s hard. Whether it takes us 20 minutes, or 20 years. We have the duty and the honor, to do what it right. For ourselves. For those who will enter this fantastic profession behind us. And all those who will walk it the rest of the way.
Your voice matters.
Even if it’s just one bold whisper.
Even when you aren’t sure whether others are with you or against you.
Even if others don’t seem to care at all.
An ethical evolution is needed. It is necessary. It is time.
I leave you today with one simple question: Who gives a damn about paralegal ethics?
Because I do. And I will.
In words, and in action.
What about you?
“A paralegal has two options, either:
- Stand up and be the proud, ethical paralegal we need you to be; or
- Sit down, so we can see the paralegals standing behind you.”
~ Credit to April Farmer for the foundation of this quote
Paralegals and paralegal leaders – now is the time. We need you to pick a side. If you find yourself on the floor, as a delegate, in a boardroom, in a classroom as a speaker, or even casting a vote on an ethical issue as an association member, step up, speak out, and vote your conscience. Do what you can to help us shape the future in a positive way. Help to be the change. Choose to be a crucial part of a much-needed ethical evolution.
Pick your head up high.
Lift your voice.
We now yield the floor to you: the paralegals reading this post. If you give a damn about paralegal ethics, share this post. Let others hear it on high. If you don’t, take a seat, so we can see those paralegals standing behind you. Continue to step up, speak out, and care about things that matter. Give the naysayers a wink. And blaze that trail.