Way back in 1984 the Mississippi Bar Association issued an ethics opinion that concluded it is not proper for an attorney to allow a disbarred or suspended attorney to work as a paralegal or legal assistant in the attorney’s law office. OPINION NO. 96 OF THE MISSISSIPPI STATE BAR, RENDERED JUNE 7, 1984. The opinion rested primarily on UPL considerations:
In the recent case of In re Frank John Kuta, Attorney, Petitioner, 427 NE2d 136 (1981), the Supreme Court of Illinois held as follows:
Without a doubt, a disbarred or suspended attorney should not serve as a law clerk or a paralegal during his disbarment or suspension. The line of demarcation between the work that a paralegal or a law clerk may do and those functions that can only be performed by an attorney is not always clear and distinct. The opportunity for a disbarred or suspended attorney who is serving as a paralegal or a law clerk to violate that line of demarcation is too great and too inviting. Also, the public is not aware of the differences between the work of a paralegal and that of an attorney. For a disbarred attorney to be seen performing what the public may perceive as legal functions can only lessen the public’s regard for the effectiveness of our attempt to discipline errant attorneys, and would foment the belief that the public was not being protected from unethical attorneys.
A synopsis of unpublished Informal Opinion 7 (found at page 134 of the American Bar Association Opinions on Professional Ethics, 1967 edition) indicates that the American Bar Association Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility previously has given this advice:
An attorney should not employ a disbarred lawyer, even to do only office work and seeing no clients, because of the practical difficulty of confining his activities to an area which does not include practice of law, and because such employment would show disrespect to the courts.
Recent reports from Texas give another reason:
Disbarred S.A. lawyer sentenced for stealing thousands from indigent veterans fund
by KENS 5 Staff
Posted on July 17, 2010 at 5:46 PM
A former San Antonio lawyer, who was found guilty of defrauding the VA, will be spending the next four and a half years in prison.
On Friday, a judge sentenced Leo Alvarado to 54 months in prison for stealing $134,000. The money was supposed to go to the legal needs of indigent veterans.
Alvarado, a disbarred lawyer and former paralegal with the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, reportedly submitted over 500 fraudulent vouchers for trips from San Antonio to Big Spring, San Angelo, Midland, Waco and other Texas cities between November 2003 and February 2006.
The trips were supposed to have been made to help indigent veterans and widows in filing claims with the Veterans Administration. Alvarado was in a position to approve his own travel. But investigators say he used invalid Social Security numbers , Social Security numbers of dead people, or numbers that belonged to different people.
They say sometimes Alvarado just made up clients so that he could be reimbursed fictitious travel expenses.
The VA says they have no record of Alvarado every assisting any veteran or widow.
Instead Alvarado pocketed the money.
None of the reports I’ve read state why Alvarado was disbarred. The State Bar of Texas website lists him as “Not eligible to practice in Texas,” but only reports the specifics on disbarment for ten years.
This poses a number of issues for the paralegal profession. First, the definition of paralegal is supposed to include attorney supervision, but the Legal Aid group apparently made him a “team leader” without supervision. So why is he called a paralegal?
Most attorneys are simply not trained or experienced in paralegal skills to actually do a paralegal’s job well. So what was the skill set required for this person as “team leader.” Is this really a paralegal position? If not, why call him a paralegal? If so, why not hire a real paralegal?
In general, why taint the paralegal profession with the stain of a person the lawyer profession found unsuitable? As the title of this post says, “If he smell bad there, he’ll smell bad here.”
Of course, these issues are just particular instances of the issues that arise when there is no firm definition of paralegal exists, when there is no “good character” requirement to become a paralegal, when there is no way to say when a person has the skill set required to be a paralegal, etc.
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