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This long-running column examines ethics in the paralegal profession. Do you have an ethical dilemma or question? E-mail us today.
Finding Ethics Resources
I recently was promoted to paralegal manager at my firm and would like to make sure our paralegals are up-to-date on ethical guidelines, but I am not sure where to begin. Can you recommend some ethics resources? Are there any ethics courses my paralegals can attend? How often should I review ethics with my paralegal staff?
Heller: I am very glad to hear that as a manager, you recognize the importance of this topic and you are taking initiative to make sure the paralegals are made aware of ethical guidelines and considerations. I suggest beginning with the model codes published and adopted by the three national paralegal associations, all of which can be found online: 1) The National Association of Legal Assistants’ Model Standards and Guidelines for the Utilization of Legal Assistants (www.nala.org); 2) The National Federation of Paralegal Associations’ Model Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility (www.paralegals.org); and 3) The American Alliance of Paralegals Inc.’s Code of Ethics (www.aapipara.org). In addition, the American Bar Association has published Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services (www.abanet.org/legalservices/paralegals).
Finally, you might ascertain whether your state or local paralegal association has adopted any codes of ethics or model guidelines. This should provide you with a good foundation for the basics. Next, incorporate this information into an in-house continuing legal education program by applying it to potential and actual workplace situations and ethical dilemmas.
You also should add in any specific guidelines or rules adopted by your law firm on accepting gifts from clients or third-party vendors, avoiding conflicts of interest, signing law firm letterhead and other ethical situations. The director of paralegals at my law firm holds an annual ethics seminar for the firm’s paralegals and project assistants. The attendance is good, and I hear from seasoned paralegals that they appreciate the opportunity to refresh themselves on certain guidelines or to hear about the experiences of their colleagues. Open discussion and a question-and-answer period are excellent learning tools among peers.
There also are many books and videos that are excellent resources and teaching tools. Our own Teri is the author of “Ethics and Professional Responsibility for Paralegals,” now in its fourth edition and published by Aspen Publishers Inc., which provides comprehensive coverage of all major areas of legal ethics, new ethics advisory opinions and court cases affecting paralegals. I also find our state bar association as well as the state supreme court to be good resources for finding decisions on cases involving disciplinary actions and the unauthorized practice of law.
Finally, for some lighthearted fun and to illustrate flagrant examples of ethical violations and guffaws, book a conference room equipped with a VCR or DVD player, have plenty of popcorn, snacks and sodas on hand, and watch “Erin Brockovich.”
My friend and colleague Bob LeClair, paralegal
program director at
NALA also offers online courses at www.nalanet.org. Having your paralegals take a Web-based course is an excellent way to provide an initial orientation in ethics or a refresher every year. Other organizations, such as the International Paralegal Management Association, offer online seminars, which are real-time and have audio and a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. Participants can send in questions for the students and teacher to discuss. These seminars have been very well received and undoubtedly will catch on as an effective way of reaching a broader audience. For more information, go to www.paralegalmanagement.org.
Bringing in an outside speaker who has ethics
expertise also is an appealing way to have your paralegals come
together for an annual refresher. Because paralegal programs teach
ethics, they are good sources for speakers. Sometimes firms get
together to co-sponsor an event or one is offered by the local
paralegal association or IPMA. For example, IPMA chapters in
I agree with
Hunt: Paralegals should be familiar with the ethical restraints that govern them, and should take the time to really study and know the guidelines and codes promulgated by the national, state and local paralegal associations. However, dedicated paralegals also should make it their business to be familiar with the code of ethics that governs attorney practice in their own state. First of all, many of those rules can and sometimes do apply to paralegals. Secondly, paralegals can save their attorney employers, especially new associates, from disaster by gently steering them away from activities that could bring trouble.
For example, I worked for a young attorney who thought it would be a good idea to call an opposing party to try to deal with him directly because he felt the party’s attorney was being unreasonable. I reminded my lawyer that in our jurisdiction, it’s improper for an attorney to make direct contact with a represented party, a fact that had slipped his mind.
In another instance, an attorney I worked for owned a company that was a codefendant in a lawsuit along with an individual who also was a client. The attorney planned to represent his own company and the client co-defendant in this lawsuit, a situation that could have presented a conflict of interest, should their interests as co-defendants become divergent. I reminded this attorney of his duty to decline representation and allow the client to obtain his own counsel.
I agree with Nancy and Teri that refresher
ethics courses always are a good idea. In
As far as resources that you could use for your in-house training, my favorite book is another text written by Teri titled “A Concise Guide to Paralegal Ethics,” published by Aspen Publishers. I have used this book for several years to teach ethics in paralegal programs, and it’s full of hypothetical situations that apply to the working lives of paralegals. There also is a series of DVDs and videos put out by Insight Media (www.insightmedia.com) on legal ethics, resolving ethical dilemmas and legal ethics for support staff.
Therese A. Cannon is
the associate director of the Western Association of Schools and
Colleges, Senior Commission in
Nancy B. Heller, RP,
has been a litigation paralegal since 1978, and has been employed
with the Columbus, Ohio-based law firm of Vorys, Sater,
Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS,
is a graduate of
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