Archive for September, 2011

The Case for Pro Bono Work

Friday, September 30th, 2011

I like to emphasize the benefits of volunteering to the paralegal performing the service, the paralegal profession, and the community. (See the “Volunteering” category. Each aspect of this trilogy could well use a post of its own. I’m going to take a shortcut on the first courtesy of lawyerist.com  which has a very good post entitled, “The Case for Pro Bono Work.” While the post is intended for lawyers, each of the points made applies directly to paralegal or can apply with very little modification – modification well within the capacity of a competent paralegal.

The post deals with three primary areas of personal benefit offered by pro bono work:

Professional Development
Improve client relationship abilities
Good, clean fun

I’d add that it satisfies the ethical obligations required by codes governing both attorneys and paralegals, as well as person and religious codes. Check out the lawerist post and the Volunteering category here for more on the benefits of pro bono work.

How Important is Collegiality?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

When academics are up for tenure and promotion they are judged – along with teaching, scholarship, and service – on collegiality, i.e., how well they interact with their colleagues. (Remember the kindergarten ratings on “Works well with others?”) One of the things I enjoyed about practicing law when I first start was the collegiality between members of the bar that existed even between attorneys on opposite sides of cases. Much of the collegiality seems to have been lost in the legal community (as it has in society in general), even among attorneys and paralegals who work together. Indeed, courts both here and in Canada have raised concerns and enacted rules regarding civility that are meaningful to paralegals as well as attorneys.

Thus, when I read, “Another Sad Tale of an Underemployed Lawyer: This One Is a Topless Dancer,” at ABAJournal.com I was struck not so much by the story of an under- or unemployed lawyer itself as being sad, but the comment, “Carla says her co-workers are a lot nicer than those she had in the legal profession. “I thought the other women I worked with would be competitive and not supportive. We are fighting over the same dollars,” she said. “But my female co-workers are the best co-workers I’ve ever had.” While this is just the opinion of one person, I suspect there are many who would agree with her. This is indeed sad at a time when the legal profession as a whole is struggling with image problems and the paralegal profession is struggling to establish its identity as a profession.

So, what do you think? What is the status of collegiality within your office and the profession in general? How important is collegiality to the operation of your office, the profession, and to your enjoyment of your career?

Passing the blame

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

In a story about another case of attorney/paralegal embezzlement of client funds, TampaBay.com reports,

A paralegal and her attorney boss spent about $70,000 of clients’ money on shopping sprees, lavish lunches and vacations. They got caught. Each blamed the other for being primarily responsible.

And these two were friends! We will likely never know the extent of each person’s responsibility here. Certainly, the attorney has ultimate responsibility because she’s the attorney, but the paralegal does have a past that indicates she may not be entirrely at fault:

…Lausburg had been implicated in crimes before. In 2005, she pleaded guilty to forgery and uttering a forged instrument after she was accused of forging the signature of a circuit court judge. At that May 2010 hearing, Andrews said Lausburg was “at least as culpable if not more culpable than Ms. Miller.”

The story raises many issues. There is always, I suppose, the potential that an attorney will at least attempt to blame a paralegal for misconduct or even missed deadlines that are really the attorney’s fault. However, there are steps paralegals can do to protect themselves:

1. Do your jobs and do them well. Do it with integrity at every step.  Document what you do;

2. Do NOT become even tangentally involved in unethical or criminal conduct;

3. Do quit a job if you are being asked to or told to engage in serious unethical conduct or any criminal conduct. (The “serious” is there only because I consider “Tell the client I’m not in” to be unethical – it is a lie, but I would not advise a paralegal to quit his job over it;)

4. Do report serious unethical behavior and criminal conduct to the proper authorities (unless prohibited by the rules governing client confidentiality; and,

5. Do consult with an independent attorney before deciding to do  or not do numbers 3 and 4.

 

Beyond Sloppiness to Gibberish

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Sort of pressed for time these days. (Another manuscript deadline approaching.) But I do want to take a moment to add this to the “Consequences of Sloppiness” file, although as the title to  the post suggests, it goes beyond sloppiness by at least 300 words. From ABAJournal.com:

A federal appeals court is so aggravated by the quality of an Illinois lawyer’s legal writing that it has ordered him to show cause why he shouldn’t be barred from practicing before the court.

Lawyer Walter Maksym was “unable to file an intelligible complaint,” despite three tries given him by the trial court, according to the opinion (PDF) by the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “Each iteration of the complaint was generally incomprehensible and riddled with errors, making it impossible for the defendants to know what wrongs they were accused of committing,” the appeals court said. In addition, “Maksym’s appellate briefing is woefully deficient, raising serious concerns about his competence to practice before this court,” the court added.

he district court was well within its discretion when it refused to accept Maksym’s second amended complaint, the appeals court said. “Though the complaint was far longer than it needed to be, prolixity was not its chief deficiency,” according to the appeals court. “Rather, its rampant grammatical, syntactical, and typographical errors contributed to an overall sense of unintelligibility. This was compounded by a vague, confusing, and conclusory articulation of the factual and legal basis for the claims and a general ‘kitchen sink’ approach to pleading the case.”

The appeals court included a 345-word sentence by Maksym to illustrate. At least 23 sentences contained 100 or more words. “Much of the writing is little more than gibberish,” the appeals court said. “Given three attempts to file a proper complaint, Maksym could not even bring himself to correct the errors cataloged by the district court following the first two rejections.”

Most of the posts regarding sloppiness here deal with exactly that.  It is highly unlikely that this kind of writing could have emanated from or gotten by a professional paralegal. So the more interesting question, it seems to me, is what a paralegal should do when the attorney is about to file documents like this? How would you handle it? I have some thoughts of my own, but they will have to wait until I have a bit more time.

When a client emails from work…

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

According to ABAJournal.com (in a story brought to my attention through the KNOW: The Magazine for ParalegalsLinkedIn Group forum) the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has issued an opinion that under the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct if a client is emailing his or her lawyer from a work computer or an employer’s electronic device, there’s a good chance that the communication could be intercepted by the employer. This in turn may impose a duty on the lawyer to warn the client “of the potential confidentiality concern.”

This opinion is, of course, only an opinion and it is based on the Model Rules, which may not be applicable to your state. However, it appears well reasoned. While the opinion and the rules themselves apply directly only to the attorney member of the legal team, this is of particular concern for paralegals because in many instances the paralegal is the primarly liason between the client and the law office. This means it will be the paralegal, not the attorney who will have the primary indication that the client is emailing from her workplace and should be warned of the confidentiality implications.

When this happens it is likely that the paralegal will have an inclination to so warn the client. However, “warn” appears to be a form of “advise” and paralegals cannot give legal advice. So, the correct step would be for the paralegal to bring the matter to the attention of the attorney. Alternatively, the law office could have a standard policy together with standard language to address this issue. If would be best to inform the client of the potential problem at the intial interview and request that all email be done through non-work devices and servers. In the event that the client “forgets” there can be a standing direction from the attorney to the paralegal to remind the client via the standard warning language.

So what if he’s a “a tyrant, an idiot, a weasel and a dump truck?”

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

We have all worked with, and often for, persons who meet this description (or something close to it.) Do not write it or even say it, except to the most intimate of your friends and relations. If those friends are fellow employees, don’t even say it to them. Do not post it on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. As a story in ABAJournal.com illustrates, it can become grounds for termination of your employment or – at the very least – ground for a defense against an a claim for wrongful termination.

One can certainly sympathize with the person who wrote these emails both because of the culture of the office at the time and because it is very, very hard to work with or for a tyrant, idiot, weasel or a dump truck, much less someone is embodies them all. But, office email and social networks (online or in person) are not the places to vent the frustration that goes with working with or for them. (As noted in The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient, and Professional the same goes for comments about clients.)

The problems is not all about the possible consequences, which go beyond lost of a job to the perception persons have of you as a professional. Even those who agree with you will think less of you for having lowered yourself to this form of name-calling. Worse, yet you will be (and therefore feel) less professional. This will cause you to lose some of the respect most necessary for empowerment – respect for yourself.

NFPA’s Annual Convention is just around the corner.

Friday, September 9th, 2011

From the NFPA LinkedIn Group board comes this reminder about the upcoming NFPA National Conference.  I am a big advocate of professional associations in general and NFPA in particular (see the “Professional Associations” category) and encourage any of you who can attend to do so. I’d go myself, but I’m scheduled to moderate a panel on “Teaching in the Cloud: WIMBA” at the AAfPE National Conference in Baltimore two weeks later and there’s a limit to the number of days I can devote to conferences.

You still have an opportunity to participate in NFPA’s Annual Convention, seminars, student workshop and Pro Bono Conference October 13 – 16, in Bloomington, MN. Meet colleagues from across the country, take your pick from 24 seminars on issues including such topics as: Social Media and the Paralegal, Employment Law, Prep, Pray, Live Through Trial, Bankruptcy Petitions and several ethics offerings, as well as seminars designed to provide insight into NFPA’s PCC and PACE exams. There are full day and half day seminar packages available.
For more information check the NFPA website: www.paralegals.org

The Paralegal Knowledge Institute,

Friday, September 9th, 2011

“Friend of the blog” Chere Estrin provided this announcement through the KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegals LinkedIn Group board:

We are giving a heads-up and pre-announcing the opening of The Paralegal Knowledge Institute, an online, interactive Continuing Legal Education community designed specifically for today’s paralegal.

Paralegal Knowledge Institute drives talent transformation and paralegal excellence. This specialized Institute leverages an unsurpassed array of resources to unleash and develop hidden career potential within the paralegal.

The ultimate goal is to help paralegals tranform and further develop professionally through high performance, greater innovation and optimal results.

We have gathered together the very best in instructors, course designers, writers and resources. Please join us in this pre-opening announcement and visit our website. We officially launch on Monday, September 12th.

Thank you, everyone, for your continued support. It’s what has made this new adventure come to life. Your feedback is welcome!

www.paralegalknowledge.com

Money and Communication Make Legal Professionals Happy

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

There are many posts here from and regarding paralegals who are either happy or unhappy with their jobs. Most often that status is determined by the amount of respect they get for what they do – respect that is shown to only a limited degree by the money they receive. It turns out this is true of other legal professionals, also – associates, for example.

ABAJournal.com reports a Boston law firm’s associates are happier with the firm Midlevel associates since it “improved communications and raised pay.” The firm learned associates wanted more dialogue with firm leaders. “As a result, the firm’s executive committee meets with associates four times a year, rather than twice a year. Based on an associate’s suggestion, a committee gathers anonymous questions that are addressed at the meetings. The firm also holds informal monthly breakfast meetings with groups of associates and seeks to demystify the partnership process with clearly established expectations and goals.”

Guess what attorneys – midlevel associate are happier with more communication and other indicia of respect because they are people and they are professionals. You are quite mistaken, however, if you believe this phenomemon is limited to attorney. Take a look around at the other members of the legal team. Paralegals, too, are people and they are professionals. Ignore this and the result is unhappy paralegals. Unhappy paralegals lead to the same kind of flaws in the performance of the legal team (you may argue about whether the flaws are not of the same magnitude, but not kind) as unhappy associates. The same respect you give others in the firm will go a long way to making them happy and even more effective, efficient, and professional.

More on Employer Reviews of Employees

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s post based on The Paralegal Mentor’s stated preference for reviews more frequent that annual reviews comes this from ABAJournal.com and The Wall Street Journal:

Some employers aren’t satisfied with annual reviews, so they are critiquing employees more often, either in old-fashioned meetings or with high-tech software.

Some companies have implemented quarterly, weekly and even daily feedback, the Wall Street Journal reports. “With many younger workers used to instant feedback—from text messages to Facebook and Twitter updates—annual reviews seem too few and far between,” the story says.

At Grasshopper LLC, billed as a phone service for entrepreneurs, managers meet with workers every two weeks to discuss performance and set goals. Company co-founder David Hauser says the frequent meetings help catch mistakes and ease tensions. “Instead of these big scary meetings, there are frequent meetings with much less pressure,” he tells the Wall Street Journal.

Just goes to show how on top of things Vicki Voisin is! But then again being on top of things is one of those things expected of a professional paralegal.