Lack of supervision of paralegal is problem for attorney

Several posts here have discussed the duty an attorney owes ethically to supervise paralegals working with that attorney. In one post, I argued it is a duty owed not only to the public, but to the paralegal. Today’s Boston Globe reports that failure to supervise a paralegal has jeopardized the license a prominent Boston attorney:

Stephen B. Hrones, the well-known 68-year-old Boston criminal defense lawyer, is heading to the state’s highest court to fight to keep his law license, accused of letting a paralegal in his office pass himself off as a lawyer in the firm’s employment discrimination practice.

The state Board of Bar Overseers recommended in October that Hrones’s license be suspended for a year and a day for the alleged misconduct. The Supreme Judicial Court plans to hear appeals in May from Hrones, who says he deserves no suspension, and from the state’s bar counsel, which had recommended a two-year suspension.

Hrones denies much, but admits he did not provide adequate supervision:

Hrones – a bearded, Harvard-educated former Fulbright scholar who dubbed himself Mr. Innocence for getting the murder or rape convictions of four prisoners tossed, based on newly discovered evidence – denied Thursday that he had authorized former employee Lionel Porter to practice law. Hrones said the firm’s letterhead identified Porter as a paralegal but that Porter began doing things behind Hrones’s back, mishandling cases and clients’ fees.

“I was too trusting of this individual, and now I’m paying the price,’’ Hrones said in an interview. “I was done in by this guy, and I should have supervised him better. . . . But I didn’t hold him out as a lawyer.’’

Porter worked for Hrones from 2001 to 2004, handling employment discrimination cases before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission even though he was, as Hrones knew, a law school graduate who had not been admitted to the bar.

Porter bungled a series of cases; got Hrones’s firm barred from appearing before MCAD, which short-circuited active cases; and kept clients’ fees for himself, according to the board’s Oct. 19 recommendation of suspension.

Although the work of paralegals can resemble that of lawyers, the board concluded that Porter went far beyond permitted tasks. Porter single-handedly managed the firm’s employment discrimination practice and drafted and filed complaints at his own initiative in Hrones’s name in federal and state courts, the board said. Hrones fired him in the fall of 2004 after learning that Porter had kept fees in violation of an agreement to split them.

I suspect we will see more cases like these as the system adjusts to the blurring of the line between the paralegal and lawyer roles that occurs when out-of-work lawyers take on the role of a paralegal. While even licensed attorneys can cause problems for a firm is not adequately supervised, the role of the paralegal in a legal team is distinctly different from the role of an attorney. Blurring that distinction will inevitably cause problems for the attorney, especially if, as is often the case, the attorney does not really understand the role of a paralegal.

But let me get this straight, the “paralegal” here “bungled a series of cases; got Hrones’s firm barred from appearing before MCAD, which short-circuited active cases,” but was fired only when the attorney learned the paralegal “kept fees in violation of an agreement to split them.”   Does Massachusetts not have an ethical role against the splitting of fees with non-lawyers? If so, it’s tough to make a case that the only thing the attorney did wrong here was failure to supervise.

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One Comment

  • alosach says:

    “Porter single-handedly managed the firm’s employment discrimination practice and drafted and filed complaints at his own initiative in Hrones’s name in federal and state courts, the board said. Hrones fired him in the fall of 2004 after learning that Porter had kept fees in violation of an agreement to split them.”
    How much is real?

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