The Blog Formerly Known As Practical Paralegalism
The ABA Journal spotlights an interesting dilemma for legal staffers in its August 12, 2009 article, “Law Firm Worker Tells Advice Columnist of Plagiarizing Lawyer”. The story arises out of a question posed by an anonymous legal staffer to “How to Deal Live” columnist Lily Garcia of the Washington Post. (By the way, I love the column title, “Surviving Your Workplace”.) Here is the question and Garcia’s response:
Pittsburgh, Pa.: There is an attorney in our law firm who is running another business out of our offices. To make up for lost time and to keep up appearances, he frequently plagiarizes work by other attorneys in different law firms around the country by submitting it as his own. I worked for him for several years and one day went sobbing to another attorney that I couldn’t take it any more, couldn’t continue being a part of his deception and underhandedness. No one from HR talked to me but I was immediately assigned to another attorney. However, the snake in the grass gave me a poor performance review due to my letting the cat out of the bag. It was all hush-hush but I understand he was caught long before I joined this firm but only given a hand slap. But he has never stopped. At any given time I see published papers from other law firms he has printed out from the Internet which will soon bear his name as well as materials from his other business. Should I contact the other firms about the plagiarism, tell the higher-ups here (and gain what I don’t know), contact the American Bar Association or do nothing? The Rules of Professional Conduct apparently do not mean squat to him.
Lily Garcia: I cannot opine on whether this attorney is violating the rules of professional conduct, but I think it is worth contacting the ABA to ask. Meanwhile, you could take it upon yourself to notify the people whose work this attorney has plagiarized. I imagine that this would go a long way toward getting the attention of your firm’s leadership. However, you should carefully gauge whether you are willing to take the risk that you will be retaliated against for your actions.
ABA ethics counsel George Kuhlman tells the ABA Journal that Rule 8.4 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, adopted in some form by all states, applies to this situation. The rule prohibits lawyers from participating in “conduct involving fraud, deceit, dishonesty or misrepresentation.” Plagiarism seems to be covered by all four actions: fraud, deceit, dishonesty and misrepresentation.
Now that we’ve established that a lawyer is committing a breach of ethics if he copies another writer’s content and presents it as his own, how does a paralegal that has uncovered a plagiarizing lawyer in her workplace handle this situation? Garcia is right, blowing the whistle on the attorney offender would direct a great deal of attention to the reporting paralegal, and possibly jeopardize her own employment. There is no guarantee that the managing partner would not fire the paralegal instead of the unethical attorney.