Posts Tagged ‘criminal conduct’

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.

 

When Paralegals Work for Dishonest Attorneys

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Lynne Devenney of Practical Paralegalism has an important post today about a paralegal pleading guilty to fraud for her participation in a mortgage fraud scheme. The paralegal’s participation was small according to the newspaper report, “Norwood received “nominal gifts totaling less than $500” for preparing false closing documents for three mortgage fraud cells, court document [sic] say.” But “[The paralegal] could face two years in prison and a $20,000 fine for two counts of fraudulent real estate settlement services.”

Lynne’s post includes this well-stated admonishment:

I don’t know the circumstances of her involvement, but what I do know is that Norwood is paying a stiff price at a very young age for, at best, extremely poor judgment – including possible jail time and a permanent criminal record. Her participation in this mortgage scheme will impede her chances of becoming re-employed or eventually moving up a professional career ladder, not only as a paralegal, but in almost any job where a background check is necessary.

It’s hard to imagine any gift being worth giving up your future.

In previous posts here we have discussed the quandaries in which paralegals may find themselves when confronted with unethical conduct on the part of an attorney. In those instances there is often a conflict between personal integrity and what the paralegal sees as their (short term) personal interest. However, I suggest that when the attorney is involved in criminal conduct the issues for the paralegal are not just ethical issues. In such circumstances paralegals must take positive steps to protect themselves.

It is truly tragic when a young person gets caught up in a scheme of this sort. Paralegals should be aware that there is a danger in just working in an office where this sort of thing is happening even if you don’t receive any “gifts.” If you are aware of the scheme, it is not difficult to commit an act that will be perceived as being in furtherance of a conspiracy, even if you resolve not to become involved. It is difficult to see in advance how a legitimate year-end bonus will be perceived by law enforcement authorities or a jury once placed in the context of such activities. Even if you can eventually show that you did not participate, the costs of responding to an investigation or defending an indictment are  quite large. In addition, even when you successfully defend against the charge your professional reputation can be tainted by association.

At least one state (South Carolina where this incident took place) is reported as still prosecuting the crime of “misprision” or failure to report a felony. While it is apparently rarely prosecuted by federal law enforcement, this blogger is aware of at least one case where it has been prosecuted in the context of a law office.

If you become aware of this type of conduct in the office in which you work, I recommend getting legal advice from an attorney outside the office immediately. As difficult as it is likely to be, you may need resign sooner rather than later as a matter of self-preservation as well as ethics.