Posts Tagged ‘embezzle’

Attorney Supervision of Freelance Paralegals

Monday, August 16th, 2010

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?

“Trust, but verify” – The attorney/paralegal relationship

Friday, March 26th, 2010

My old stomping grounds provides another story of a paralegal embezzling from the law office in which she worked. This time it’s only $80,000 – small change compared to some. These stories are always disheartening, even outside of the legal profession, but are especially so when they involve the attorney/paralegal relationship. On the one hand it is good that attorneys are recognizing the abilities and independence of the paralegal professionals who work with them. (In this post I won’t go off on a tangent about whether or not this individual paralegal was actually qualified to bear the “paralegal” title.)  However, the attorney/client relationship ought not to be one of two individuals working separately for a common purpose.

Attorneys and paralegal, at least under our system, are a legal team, each with their own role. The role of the attorney continues to be that of supervisor. That role requires that the attorney verify the work done by the attorney, including the work they do with client and office accounts. Thus, it is always a mystery to me how paralegals can embezzle so much without getting caught. (This is in no way a criticism of this particular attorney. I do not know him or any of the circumstances other than what is in the story.)

I attribute much of this to the continued confusion on the part of the bar regarding the proper role for paralegals as part of the legal team and the attorney’s responsibility to supervise the paralegal. I’ve previously posted that I view the duty to supervise as one that is owed to the paralegal as well as the public. It would be helpful for both the paralegal and the attorney professions for the attorneys to have an increased understanding. Thus, I encourage both bar and paralegal associations to include these topics in CLE presentations designed for attorneys. There is, after all, no rule saying that paralegal associations cannot educate attorneys. Paralegals do it in law offices hundreds of times every day. I am quite sure that I and many of may colleagues at AAfPE would be willing to assist in this effort.