The Blog Formerly Known As Practical Paralegalism
A realistic blog about paralegals is going to include posts about negative legal professional activities, even though it is not my favorite subject to write about. In an ideal world, every legal professional would always do the right thing and abide by the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. But working paralegals and paralegal students need to be aware of all major legal news stories, even the ones that make us angry, both for their cautionary and educational value.
This is an update of Practical Paralegalism’s March 25, 2009 blog post about Florida attorney, A. Clark Cone, who was temporarily disbarred at that time due to allegations that he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients. The South Florida Business Journal is now reporting that he was arrested last week on charges of “first-degree grand theft and continuing criminal enterprise.”
The investigation found that Cone was depositing settlement money he received on behalf of his clients into his trust account, then transferring the money into his personal account. Investigators were tipped off to the illegal activity after the Florida Bar subpoenaed Cone’s bank records and conducted an audit on his accounts.
Cone entered a Guilty Plea and Consent to Immediate Disbarment in May 2009, which the Florida Supreme Court accepted. One of the sworn complaints filed with The Florida Bar was by his former paralegal, Melody Ashling, who alleged that Cone missed the statute of limitations in two cases, and “in one of those cases forged the client’s name…on an unauthorized notice of voluntary dismissal.” The Florida Supreme Court also received affidavits from some of his clients and victims which indicate that many of them have not received all of their settlement proceeds sent to Cone.
Cone at one point in his career enjoyed a stellar reputation as a litigator. His defense attorney stated that he has suffered “devastating personal problems” in the last few years.
One of the worst situations that an honest and competent paralegal can find herself in is working for an attorney that is engaging in incompetent, unethical and/or illegal activities, including failing to meet court deadlines, especially if the attorney has had a successful career and been recognized by his peers for excellence in the legal profession. Not only may a paralegal find herself in the unenviable position of reporting her own employer to the firm’s managing partners and/or the state bar, she may find herself forced out of a job and having to answer questions about the situation in future job interviews.
One of the most difficult ethical dilemmas paralegals may encounter is discovering unethical behavior by the attorneys they work for. Suppose you witness one of the attorneys you work for shredding documents that have been requested by the opposing counsel in a lawsuit, or that you discover him or her borrowing money from a client trust account. Reporting unethical behavior could mean the loss of status or employment with the firm. Is it unethical to remain silent? Yes. Paralegals have an ethical duty to report misconduct of attorneys. The code of ethics for attorneys in nearly every jurisdiction requires attorneys to report misconduct by other attorneys, and this duty then extends to paralegals.
I hope that Ashling has been able to move forward with her life and her career after what has to have been a traumatic employment experience, but in a case alleging this much in client damages, I fear that she may be spending more time testifying as a witness in some of Cone’s former clients’ legal malpractice cases.