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Should a Paralegal Expose a Plagiarizing Lawyer?

Should a Paralegal Expose a Plagiarizing Lawyer?

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.

So, I am going to pose a hypothetical to you, my thoughtful and experienced readers. You’re a smart and valued paralegal that has discovered a hotshot firm associate is representing others’ content as his own original work. What are you going to do?

4 Responses to Should a Paralegal Expose a Plagiarizing Lawyer?

  1. I'd be really leery of accusing anyone of plagiarism without being 100% sure – seeing printouts of other's work product isn't proof of plagiarism, and neither is word for word copying from a brief, as the original writer may have given permission. However, if I was 100% sure, I'd approach the person in our firm who did it and if they blew me off, then the manageing partner. I don't think I would go to the writer of the piece that was plagiarized.

  2. An excellent post, Lynne. Since I am not a paralegal I won't opine on what I think someone else should do in this situation, but I'm looking forward to reading the responses. I am likely to use the post and the responses to spark discussion in class. While few paralegals will run into this particular problem, many will face the question of whether to report unethical behavior on the part of attorneys for whom they work or in the their office.

  3. Robert – Thanks for the comment, and actually your input, as well as other lawyers, is very much desired. Lawyers who've practiced, hired and supervised associates, as well as had partnerships, are in an excellent position to advise legal staffers in this very difficult position. What would you want your staff members to do if they busted your hypothetical hotshot hire, or worse, your long time partner, plagiarizing?

  4. I'm getting the impression something else is going on here.

    First, I'd like to know what material he is republishing and in what form. If he is taking work done in a similar or precedent setting case and formulating it to fit pleadings or documents for his clients, well, that's hardly plagiarism. If he's lifting text from one law review article and inserting it in his own without attribution, that's another thing. I think it would be useful to know the substance of the so-called plagiarism.

    As far as contacting the other firms, she better watch it. By doing so, she may be violating confidentiality rules in place at her own firm.

    She no longer works for the guy. She has already told someone higher up in the firm. After all this, she's still harping on it. Perhaps the bigger issue is her apparent disdain (or something else) for this lawyer.

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Contact Info:

Lynne J. DeVenny, N.C. State Bar Certified Paralegal

Owner & Virtual Paralegal, DeVenny Paralegal Services

Email: lynne.devenny[at]gmail.com

Telephone: 336-582-0003

Inquiries are welcome, with free quotes available.

Meet Lynne:

Lynne DeVenny is a North Carolina State Bar Certified Paralegal with over 27 years of experience working on complex litigation cases, including medical malpractice, personal injury, workers’ compensation, and Social Security disability.

Disclosure: I am not a lawyer and cannot provide legal representation or legal advice.

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