Ethics and Professionalism – Just for Paralegals A Study in Situational Ethics
Paralegals become such for many reasons. Some began a long time ago as a secretary and worked their way up. Others went to school and knew they wanted to work in the legal profession. Others just sort of fell into it by chance. But there is a consistent theme with almost all of them that I have learned about in the years that I have been hosting Continuing Legal Education seminars for attorneys and paralegals in North Carolina – they are some of the most dedicated and hard working people in the legal profession today, and that profession would be hard pressed to survive in its current form without them.
The topics I seek to discuss in a very inter-active way in this new program is a direct reflection of many of the statements, hopes, concerns, and in some cases, fears that paralegals deal with every day.
First, though, what are some of the basic Ethical Principles for Attorneys and by extension for Paralegals –
- Build and keep trust with clients
- Communicate often and truthfully with clients
- Do not over promise
- Follow through on promises made
- Give clients individual and complete attention
- Treat clients equally
- Treat clients as though their case is the most important in the world – it is to them
- Preserving the confidences and secrets of the clients
- Representing clients competently and zealously within the bounds of the law
- Avoiding even the appearance of impropriety
Attorneys and paralegals deal with these principles every day. Often it is the paralegal who deals most directly with clients, as a line of communication between the attorney and clients. The paralegals have to deal with the clients in complete honesty. But the paralegals also have to deal with their attorneys the same way…and that sometimes can be where the rubber meets the road.
I propose a new CE program on Ethics for paralegals based upon a number of questions they have continued to raise in the seminars I have hosted. I believe a detailed discussion of their ethical responsibilities should be practical and reflect their everyday concerns.
The following questions for paralegals are the ones that seem to me to be most important and are ones often raised by paralegals themselves:
- Why did you become a paralegal? Did it happen by chance or by choice? Do you enjoy it? Are you passionate about it? If not, why not? Can you get it back? Do you think passion is an essential part of being a good and ethical paralegal?
- What to you hope to get from this profession? Is it money? Security? Helping people? Being a part of the legal profession?
- What do you think are the traits that are most important in being a successful paralegal? Some of them could be honesty, loyal, non-judgmental, curiosity, a willingness to learn new things, a thick skin.
- Have you ever been asked to do a task you did not know how to do, and no one helped you figure it out? What did you do or should do in the future if that should happen? What about research, networking with other paralegals, asking your attorney or another one?
- Confidentiality – do you know the importance of this and what it means? Has anyone ever explained it to you before?
- Have you ever been asked to do something you feel uncomfortable with doing – such as telling a client something you know not to be true, covering up on some untruth for an attorney or been asked to notarize a document when you cannot truthfully do so?
- What if the attorney says something to a client that you believe or know not to be true? What is your responsibility or obligation? What should you do?
- What if an attorney seeks to take some of your billable hours on behalf of a client for the him or herself? And then your billable hours are too low for the firm?
- Have you ever been fearful of starting a new job or keeping the one you have now? Does that put you under any ethical challenge?
- Mental health issues – do you know what depression is? Do your job and the ceiling of future advancement cause you to be depressed? Are you afraid of any stigma attached to it? Are you afraid of seeking professional help or taking anti-depressant medication?
- Are you worried about your attorney’s mental health? If so, what should you do about it?
- What are your specific obligations if you believe your attorney is not acting in an ethical manner, either with respect to clients and/or the law firm? What if you suspect he or she is taking money from a trust account?
Each of these questions represents the real world today for paralegals. They are faced not only with their own decisions and actions but also the people for whom they work. This program seeks to be a discussion and a forum by which paralegals can learn better how to act in a totally ethical manner and how to handle those situations where they are confronted by attorneys who perhaps are challenging them in any way. It is a study of the Rules of Ethics that govern attorneys and paralegals in the practical world in which they work. It is learning how to deal with these issues, in compliance with the Rules of Ethics, one situation at a time.
As a basis of this program, I seek to use not only my own times as an attorney, but also the many circumstances I have learned regularly face paralegals in North Carolina.