The Blog Formerly Known As Practical Paralegalism
Attorneys Constance Rudnick and Ursula Furi-Perry, faculty members at the Massachusetts School of Law, published an article that all legal professionals should read, “You Are Your Paralegal’s Keeper: Ethical Considerations about the Supervision of Non-lawyers at Your Firm” in the school’s Winter 2009 edition of The Reformer. The importance of supervising non-lawyers in all firm functions, including ethical conduct, client fund accounts, work product, internal procedures, and proper training are discussed, with an emphasis on lawyers’ responsibility to oversee the actions of their staff. The authors remind us that actual knowledge of a staff member’s wrongdoing is not necessary to expose an attorney to disciplinary actions, and cite several cases where attorneys were disciplined for exercising minimal or no care over their own firm’s bank accounts – after employees embezzled funds from both operating and trust accounts.
The article lists “fundamental ethical and operational issues likely to arise in the everyday practice of law” which attorneys should review with new non-lawyer hires, including:
- Adequately investigate prospective employees’ backgrounds. “Minimize the chances for [employee misconduct] by adequately vetting the candidate.”
- Communicate “the basic duties of a lawyer: Confidentiality, loyalty, competence, diligence.” Have the employee sign a confidentiality agreement.
- Report “actual or possible conflicts.” Have employees inform the attorney if they have worked on matters involving current clients.
- Employees should not establish client relationships or fee agreements, and should not conduct initial interviews without an attorney.
- Employees cannot give legal advice.
- Employees must promptly tell the attorney about all client communications and messages, “oral or written (e-mail or snail mail).” The attorney must be copied on all employee correspondence to clients.
- Train and supervise employees to track and calendar dates for “filing documents, court appearances, or other events.”
- Employees may not communicate directly with opposing parties who are represented by counsel.
- Non-lawyers should not sign the lawyers’ names to official documents and correspondence (some states, such as North Carolina, may have special exceptions to this rule). Having an attorney signature stamp is not recommended. The attorney must review all documents.
- “Do not give the employee authority to manage client fund accounts – just don’t!” (Based on recent news accounts of employee theft from law firms, employees should administer bank accounts under the attorney’s adequate and close supervision.)
- Hold regular meetings with employees to review work, training and ethical conduct.
- Train employees to handle mail properly, including obtaining attorney approval of correspondence sent outside the firm and confidentiality issues.
- Emphasize that employees should not have [improper] personal relationships with clients, “including lending or advancing money.”
“You Are Your Paralegal’s Keeper” is a great article to provide to all staff members, lawyer and non-lawyer, to review and keep on hand for future reference. It is also a terrific educational reference for law and paralegal instructors and students. The original article is available in pdf format at http://www.mslaw.edu/News/Reformer/winter09.pdf______________________________Thanks to Massachusetts School of Law faculty and authors Constance Rudnick and Ursula Furi-Perry for giving me permission to review and share excerpts from this terrific article.