The Blog Formerly Known As Practical Paralegalism
To help you out, here are my recommended ways to determine whether what you are about to do is ethical:
- Be familiar with the ethical guidelines for paralegals and attorneys, as well as any rules and regulations specific to your state. We often have to educate attorneys on paralegal ethics so keep this information handy and refer to it often.
- Check the rules, regulations, and procedures for your area of law. These state who may do something, often only the attorney or the party, and are usually intended to apply only to them. Attorneys will sometimes assume (there’s that word again!) that if a rule doesn’t specifically forbid it, then it’s okay for a non-attorney to do it. However, the absence of a prohibition doesn’t imply permission for a non-attorney.
- Paralegals don’t have clients, attorneys do. That’s why it’s called the attorney-client relationship. If what you are about to do could be considered representation of a client before a judge, court, or agency, then it is likely something only an attorney may do. This includes signing pleadings (even by permission, unless specifically allowed in your state), certificates of service, or other legal documents, and appearing on behalf of a client in a hearing, conference, mediation, or other proceeding.
- Regarding billing and timekeeping, consider whether you would do it in front of the client. If you think the client would object, don’t do it. For example, if you would be reluctant to double bill, bill for more time than has elapsed, round up time, or other similar practices, then those actions are likely unethical.
- Often you can do all the above and still not be sure. Check ethics resources such as the Paralegal Ethics Handbook, paralegal association websites, and other legal ethics resources. You could also ask respected paralegals their opinions.
- If in doubt, tell your attorney you aren’t convinced it would be ethical for you to carry out that particular assignment. You might suggest an attorney take care of the task until you can investigate whether it’s appropriate for a paralegal to do it. It’s okay to say “no” as long as you are professional about it.
Remember: You are either ethical or you aren’t. You can’t pick and choose when to be ethical or which rules to follow. If you are frequently asked to do things you consider unethical, despite your efforts to educate your supervising attorney, perhaps you should consider finding a different job, one where ethics are valued. After all, anyone can look good on paper and there will always be someone whose resumé is more impressive than yours. But your most important asset is your professional reputation. ____________Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP, received her Bachelor of Music (BM) degree from Southwestern University and her paralegal certificate from Southwestern Professional Institute in Houston. She is a past president of the Paralegal Division of the State Bar of Texas and Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Division, a position she also held from 1997 to 2004 and again from 2007 to present. Ellen is the lead author of the Division’s Paralegal Ethics Handbook which is published by West Legalworks. She is also a past president of the Alamo Area Paralegal Association and a frequent speaker and writer on paralegal ethics and intellectual property. In 2008, Ellen was honored to receive the San Antonio Paralegal of the Year award and the Paralegal Division’s Award of Excellence. She is currently the Intellectual Property Specialist for Clear Channel Communications, Inc. You may follow her on Twitter: @paralegalethics