Attorney Supervision of Freelance Paralegals

I have advocated here for the proposition that attorneys have an obligation to paralegals, as well as the public, to provide adequate supervision to the paralegals with whom they work. And I have often commented that cases involving paralegal embezzlement raise real questions regarding whether the attorneys supervising the embezzling paralegal have provided adequate supervision. The issue is, however, not clear cut as there are few clear standards as to what constitutes adequate supervision. The issue is even more complex when the attorney contracts with a freelance or virtual paralegal for services.

This story excerpted from the Law Times involves a Canadian attorney and paralegal, but it illustrates the point:

A lawyer who worked with former paralegal Shellee Spinks, who stole $2.6 million from clients, denies he could have done anything to stop her.

Spinks used an old trust account belonging to Hamilton, Ont., lawyer Michael Puskas’ law firm to deposit funds for mortgage transactions and then transferred the money to a personal account at the same bank to feed her gambling habit.

Sentencing the former paralegal to four years in jail on Aug 5, Ontario Superior Court Justice Barry Matheson was left to wonder how she got away with it for so long.

“How it went undetected is a mystery to me. Did the lawyers not check on their paralegal?” asked Matheson. “Did the law society not check on the trust accounts of the firm? Many questions remain unanswered.”

The court heard Spinks worked for Puskas between 2002 and 2008, when she was arrested. But Puskas tells Law Times his relationship with Spinks, who operated an office in the same building as him, was always at arm’s-length.

He says he contracted her to assist him on real estate files, but she was never his employee.
“These were all files of which I wasn’t aware. If someone is suggesting I should have been breaking into her office and reviewing her filing cabinet, that’s putting a heavy onus on me,” says Puskas.

He says he asked Spinks to close down the trust account in September 2006 because he was transitioning from sole practice to a partnership and no longer needed the old trust account.

“She told me she had closed it. She had me sign a cheque to transfer the remaining funds out of it into the new account. Unfortunately I relied upon her advice that she had indeed shut it down,” says Puskas.

The attorney is correct that “If someone is suggesting I should have been breaking into her office and reviewing her filing cabinet, that’s putting a heavy onus on [the atorney],” but it hardly seems anyone is suggesting that. Surely there are steps lesser steps that the attorney can put into place. I seldom agreed with Ronald Reagan, but as I argued in a previous post there is significant merit to his signature line: “Trust, but verify.” While the attorney need not be responsible for the paralegal’s other clients and other accounts, it is possible and necessary to verify what is being done for his clients and with his accounts.

What do all you freelance and virtual paralegals think about this?

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