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Ethics Roundtable

Finding Ethics Resources

By Therese A. Cannon, Nancy B. Heller, RP, Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS,

March/April 2006 Table of Contents

 

Question:

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.”

 

Cannon: Nancy has suggested some great resources. I think you also should check to see if you are in one of the 25 or so jurisdictions that has adopted its own Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services, some of which are modeled on the ABA’s. If you have guidelines in your state, they will highlight the cases and issues that are unique to your region or are of special interest to practitioners in your state. Local bars and state supreme courts usually publish these guidelines on their Web sites.

My friend and colleague Bob LeClair, paralegal program director at Kapiolani Community College in Hawaii, has produced a series of videos about the paralegal profession, some of which include panel discussions and hypothetical scenarios on ethical issues affecting paralegals. You can contact Bob about purchasing these low-cost videos at leclair[at]hawaii.edu. Both Bob and I suggest you provide your staff with written ethics materials in advance of a training session and use the videos to stimulate discussion among the paralegals.

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 Portland, Ore., and Seattle have sponsored ethics seminars and invited all paralegals in the member firms.

I agree with Nancy that an annual review is advisable to refresh paralegals’ understanding and to bring them up-to-date with new ethics cases and opinions, as well as other professional issues.

 

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 California, where I live, paralegals are required to obtain four hours of continuing education in ethics every three years. It’s only a matter of time before other states follow suit. While this might seem like a nuisance, if you think about the big picture, it really is good for the profession. Paralegals are becoming more and more involved in high-level legal work, and professional duties are expanding to include large amounts of client contact and participation in confidential matters. The increased focus on ethics for paralegals is a by-product of the greater trust placed on them by clients and employers.

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 Alameda, Calif. She also serves as the educational consultant to the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Paralegals. She is the author of “Ethics and Professional Responsibility for Paralegals” and “A Concise Guide to Paralegal Ethics,” both published by Aspen Publishers, Inc., and is co-author of “Paralegals, Profitability, and the Future,” published by the ABA. She has been teaching and lecturing on legal ethics for more than 25 years.

 

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, Seymour and Pease for the past 20 years. She has been a frequent seminar lecturer on the topic of ethics and is a co-author of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations’ Model Code of Ethics. Since 1999, she has served on the adjunct faculty for the Capital University Law School Paralegal Program where she teaches Ethics and Law Office Practice and Civil Litigation II: Trial Preparation and Practice. She also is a co-author of the ethics section for NFPA’s Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam Study Manual.

 

Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS, is a graduate of the Fresno City College paralegal program and a litigation paralegal with Duggan Smith in San Luis Obispo, Calif. She is the co-author of Evidence Management for the Paralegal (Cengage, 2007), as well as two other paralegal books. Hunt taught legal writing and ethics for the paralegal studies program at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. She is a past president of the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations and currently is working on modules for the Commission for Advanced California Paralegal Specialization’s new online program.

 

 

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