Handling Unethical Attorney Conduct

Lynne at Practical Paralegalism has an excellent post entitled “Should a Paralegal Expose a Plagiarizing Lawyer?”
She asks the question,

[H]ow does a paralegal that has uncovered a plagiarizing lawyer in her workplace handle this situation? Garcia is right, blowing the whistle on the attorney offender would direct a great deal of attention to the reporting paralegal, and possibly jeopardize her own employment. There is no guarantee that the managing partner would not fire the paralegal instead of the unethical attorney.

So, I am going to pose a hypothetical to you, my thoughtful and experienced readers. You’re a smart and valued paralegal that has discovered a hotshot firm associate is representing others’ content as his own original work. What are you going to do?

I strongly urge you to give this question some thought and respond with a comment to Lynne’s post. While there is no “right” answer to this type of question, the best answer  can often be through open discussion among those who have or might find themselves confronting the situation.

You might think that the paralegal/attorney relationship, being somewhat personal in natural would not entail much by way of formal ethical discussion.  However, that relationship can be the source of some of the most difficult ethical decisions a paralegal has to make: What do I do if I know my attorney is violating the Rules of Ethical Conduct and/or a law? And, even worse, what do I do if my attorney asks me to do something ethical?

Fortunately, you can find some guidance in the ethical codes of various paralegal associations. In  earlier posts I discussed the importance of paralegals, as  professionals, belonging to one or more of these associations and participating in their listservs, reading their journals and the like. The ethical codes of these organizations are not laws, but they do provide a good framework to use in facing these difficult issues.

Some common sense must be invoked in interpreting the language of the code. The attorney asking you to tell a client he is in court when he is really in his office is dishonest, but is not likely to rise to the level requiring (or even suggesting) reporting.

As stated above, these codes do not have the force of law. In particular situation you may want to seek legal advice yourself. Some states do have particular laws making failure to report certain actions such as judicial bribery, a crime.  However, for the most part, it is really of a matter of ethics rather than legal consequence for the paralegal (unlike an attorney who can lose his license.)  In most cases it is going to be a matter of balancing personal interest (you will likely lose your job if for no other reason than the attorney may lose his license), against personal integrity, protecting the public and maintaining the integrity of the legal profession.  In the end, I would hope that personal integrity wins out over personal interests, but you must be the judge in each situation.

If you do decide to report, I do suggest obtaining legal advice first from an attorney outside of the one in which you work. Remember that attorney has a firm obligation to keep what you tell her confidential. That attorney can advise you regarding protections to which you may be entitled, the proper authority to which you should report and the correct procedures for reporting.  Generally, you will receive immunity from being sued by your employer for slander and libel, and you may be entitled to certain protections against on-the-job retaliation under “Whistleblower” laws. She will help you analyze the situation to determine whether you have the necessary facts, have properly interpreted the facts and validate your decision regarding the proper balancing of interest and integrity.

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