Posts Tagged ‘supervision’

Supervision Abdication

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

As discussed in several posts here attorneys owe a duty to both the public and the paralegal to provide adequate supervision, a duty that may extend to supervising paralegal sexual relations under certain circumstances. Supervision can range from micro-management to total abdication of responsibility. While in some instances questions can arise as to whether an attorney has provided sufficient supervision especially in cases of embezzlement by paralegals and other situations, cases of total abdication are easier to spot but all the more difficult to understand seeing that they can lead to disbarment. Today’s example comes from ABA.Journal.com which reports that”A San Diego lawyer has agreed to be disbarred for allowing a nonlawyer to open and operate a law firm in his name that offered credit-repair services. Ernest George Georggin, 68, agreed to give up his law license and to pay $90,000 in restitution, plus interest, to 25 former clients of the law firm who filed complaints, according to a California State Bar press release, U-T San Diego and the Metropolitan News-Enterprise. According to a stipulation of facts (PDF), Georggin formed Georggin Law with nonlawyer Eric Phillips in 2010 and “completely abdicated” the firm to Phillips and other nonlawyers. Georggin collected a salary, but Phillips managed the firm.”

In this case there sounds like there was something particularly nefarious going on. But the point remains that if your attorney truly leaves you in charge of the office for an extended period of time or even for a short period of time if during that time you to ” decide[d] which new clients to accept, set legal fees and use[d] a stamp with Georggin’s signature to conduct legal business” it jeopardizes the attorney’s license, your job, and may actually subject you to charges of UPL.

More Paralegal Crimes

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

After a little span marked by the absence of paralegal crimes on my news feed, I find two such stories today.

There is an inherent conflict in the role of paralegals. On the one hand they are expected to be reliable, responsible, self-starting individuals able to work independently of hands-on direct monitoring. On the other, they are supposed to work under the supervision of an attorney. The extent of the necessary supervision is open to discussion and has been discussed here several times. However, without offensive to the thousands of honest paralegals, that supervision really ought to include regularly double-checking and auditing of accounts under the charge of the paralegals as this story indicates:

Ex-Pima County paralegal pleads guilty in fraud case

Kim Smith, Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star | Posted: Monday, April 2, 2012 12:02 pm

A former paralegal with the Pima County Attorney’s Office pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery with intent to defraud Monday in Pima County Superior Court.

Brenda Pinckney could be placed on probation by Judge Michael Miller next month or she could receive a prison term of between 1 1/2 and 7 1/2 years.

Pinckney, who worked for 12 years at the Pima County Attorney’s Office, was indicted Jan. 5 on charges alleging she stole more than $4,000 from the office – money intended to reimburse crime victims and witnesses for travel to Pima County Superior Court and per diem costs.

She faced 19 felony charges including fraud, theft, forgery and aggravated taking the identity of another person.

As part of her job, Pinckney, 36, was responsible for obtaining funds from petty cash and giving them to the witnesses.

Pinckney was accused of submitting reimbursement requests for nonexistent addresses and for court events that didn’t happen, according to a letter notifying Pinckney of her impending termination. She was also accused of not returning the required receipts or forging the signatures of victims and witnesses on the receipts she did return.

Some of the receipts were for travel from as far as San Jose, Calif.; Hermosillo, Sonora; and Page.

On Monday, Pinckney admitted submitting false reimbursement forms for travel to and from Yuma and Flagstaff for more than $442.

The key here is probably the fact that she worked in the office for 12 years and played off the trust she had built up over those years.

The next story is not so easy to fathom. First there is no indication as to why the alleged prepetrator is being labelled a “paralegal” and there is little indication as to what the “paralegal’s” role was in the scheme. But we have seen the phenomenon before. In all likelihood there is a split in this cases. In some the paralegal is a knowing, willing, and perhaps avid participant because of their inherent character. But I also suspect there are a fair number of paralegals who start out honest, but become involved in schemes hatched by attorneys or other persons in power over the paralegal out of fear of saying “No,” desire to please, or lack of understanding of the import of what they are being asked to do. In any case, here’s the second story of an alleged paralegal crime.

Massachusetts Paralegal Charged in Property Mortgage Scam

 

(Source: IRS) – MARCH 30, 2012 – BOSTON – A paralegal was charged late yesterday in connection with a multi-year, multi-property mortgage fraud scheme.  Rebecca L. Konsevick, 40, of Roslindale, was charged by Information with bank fraud and money laundering.

The Information alleges that from 2006 through 2008, Konsevick committed fraud in connection with condominium sales in Massachusetts. It is alleged that a developer identified multiple-family buildings for sale, recruited straw buyers to purchase the buildings and that the developer and others then recruited straw buyers to purchase individual units in buildings that the developer controlled.

According to the Information, the straw buyers’ financing for the purchases was obtained by falsely representing key information to lenders. The developer and others allegedly caused loan applications containing false representations regarding the buyers’ income, employment, assets, and/or intention to reside in the condominiums to be submitted to mortgage lenders. In addition, Konsevick and the developer caused HUD-1 settlement statements to be submitted to the same lenders, falsely representing that straw buyers had paid funds in connection with the property transactions, and falsely representing how the proceeds of the mortgage loans were disbursed. It is further alleged that Konsevick falsely signed certifications on these HUD-1 settlement statements and closed the relevant property deals.

If convicted on the bank fraud counts, Konsevick faces up to 30 years in prison to be followed by five years of supervised release and a $1 million fine. If convicted of money laundering, Konsevick faces up to 10 years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

Attorney Supervision – Another Point of View

Friday, August 12th, 2011

I’ve often posted here on the attorney’s obligation to supervise paralegals. Superlegal Fun reverses the roles in a post on her blog and examines the need for paralegal supervision of attorneys in a post entitled, “10 things you should never let lawyers do by themselves.” While the list is humorous, speaking as an attorney I can confirm that she is right about enforcing these rules.

For example, “Rule No. 1: 1. Never let an attorney hold an original document without supervision. They WILL write on it, spill coffee on it, or lose it and claim they never saw it before. The “WORKING COPY” stamp is your best friend.” This was an actual rule in my office. I just could not stand the responsibility of having an original document. However, I tried to extend the rule to everyone – the originals were tucked safely away and everyone used “working copies” for day-to-day tasks.

Click the link above to get the whole list and her final advice:

Usually, the older attorneys recognize that they are not allowed/able to do these things. BUT, those attorneys, on occasion, will try to be “helpful” and handle their own crap. Reinforce with those attorneys it is a bad idea and that they have tried to be “helpful” in the past and it ended in disaster.

The list can be filed a number of places, but I’d start with “Stress Management.”

Adequate Supervision and Embezzlement

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Yet another story in the news of a paralegal being charged with embezzling from her law firm. This story involves a south Florida paralegal who is actually a licensed attorney in another state, but was apparently working as a paralegal in Florida. Perhaps that is why she was able (if the allegations are true) to transfer “transferred $82,473.86 from the firm to pay off three credit cards accounts belonging to her husband in 2008 and 2009,” steal “over $56,000 from accounts belonging to Steven A. Schultz, a lawyer who leased space with the firm,” and transfer “$31,050 from Schultz’s credit card account to the law firm’s account, a move meant to cover up earlier thefts from her employer.”

{At the time, Schultz had been hospitalized at Jackson Memorial Hospital with a terminal illness and was not expected to survive. He did, however, survive and attended Tuesday’s court hearing, according to the report in the Miami Herald.

If the charges are true, there is no doubt as to whole is to blame for the embezzlement – the paralegal. But as I’ve noted before instances such as this raise questions as to whether the paralegal has received “adequate supervision” from her attorneys, something that is both required by the Rules of Professional Conduct and something to which all paralegals are entitled. While this person was a licensed attorney in another state, she was working as a paralegal and thus subject to the supervision requirement.

Thus while the blame for the embezzlement falls squarely on the embezzler, the firm must take some responsibility for supervision that allowed her to engage in this conduct for a period of two or three years.

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.

Paralegal Aids Seniors

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

The Enid News and Eagle(Oklahoma) reports on yet another instance of paralegals providing increased access to justice in the United States. This paralegal, like the others, works under the supervision of an attorney, but is clearly given a fair amount of responsibility and independence. She cannot provide advice, but she, like all professional paralegals, can provide valuable information geared to the client’s specific needs. Here is part of the report:

ENID — Judy Clay, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma senior citizen’s paralegal, will be in Enid to meet with Garfield County seniors who need information on a legal matter or have questions… The session is free. No appointment is necessary.

Legal Aid is a nonprofit law firm providing civil legal services to low-income people and senior citizens. Legal Aid serves 77 counties, accepting cases in the areas of domestic abuse, housing and consumer law and government benefits.

Lack of supervision of paralegal is problem for attorney

Monday, March 1st, 2010

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.

On “becoming” a paralegal

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Buried deep within a story on possible problems at a Vermont nuclear power plant is this:

Wife Maggie, a former journalist who met her future husband in 1977 when both worked for a proposed nuclear power plant that was never built on the shores of Lake Ontario, became a paralegal after they moved to Burlington. Together, they run a consulting company, Fairewinds Associates, that has come to specialize in doing legal work for those trying to intervene in nuclear issues across the country.

In their New North End home, the couple sit with laptops, sorting through an avalanche of information they have collected about Vermont Yankee. Between the two of them, they meticulously document everything. Within seconds they can retrieve information about who said what to whom, when. They helpfully finish each other’s sentences. He is the scientist with a steal-trap memory for dates and details. She is the paralegal who digs for documents, compiles reports and prepares testimony.

This blog is not about nuclear power, so I take no position on the work done by this couple or the power plant issues raised in the article. What draws my interest is the statement that Maggie “became a paralegal.” What exactly does that mean? Is there some educational criteria that she met? Did she work for a law firm and, if so, in what capacity? Is she certified and, if so, by whom.

I am not here critiquing Maggie as I have no knowledge of her other than what appears in the story. She may be highly qualified as a paralegal (although there are no uniformly accepted standards by which to make that judgment). My concern is with the nonchalent use of the term “paralegal” which almost necessarily flows from the lack of any uniform standards. In fact, the only generally accepted definition of “paralegal,” that endorsed by ABA, NFPA, NALA, AAfPE, NALS, etc., would indicate this sentence is not correct: “She is the paralegal who digs for documents, compiles reports and prepares testimony,” because that definition insists that a person is a paralegal only if he or she works supervised by an attorney and there is no indication that Maggie is supervised by anybody.

The fact of the matter is that, with very limited jurisdictional exceptions, one can simply become a paralegal. In fact, all that appears to be needed is the willingness to say you are a paralegal!

A question of identity

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

The paralegal profession continues to deal with questions of identity and definition as can be seen by responses to this post on the Legal Assistant Today listserv:

I am new to this blog, new to this profession-I’m actually finishing my certificate in the spring.Although I hope to get into mediation practice, I want to spread my skills out as far as I can over the legal spectrum. So in order for me to get started as an independent paralegal, I’m trying to design a business card. Does anyone have any ideas about what I can put on my business card other than just “Independent Paralegal”?

Aside from the question of whether there is a role for truly “independent” paralegals within the current American legal system and, if so, what that role should be, there is some confusion in this instance as whether the person making the post means “independent” or “freelance.”  The post also raises questions about education, certification, and experience. All of these questions are raised by Rachel in her response:

The paralegals I know who are freelancers all have years–as in 20, 30 years–experience in this profession and did not jump from a certificate to a full blown, attorneys knocking down their doors, career.

 
You might want to maybe get your feet wet a bit before you do this. From what I understand, the laws vary from state to state but even a freelance paralegal has to be beholden to an attorney in order to do any real substantial legal work independently. Check your states statutes concerning this.
 
Also, is this certificate you spoke of just that–a certificate, like a program you took that lasted a year or less? If so, you might also want to do some research into the area where you live as far as the minimum educational requirements for this type of work. The only way around not having at least an associates if not a bachelors degree where I live is to either 1.) start out in a different capacity, say, as a legal secretary or something along those lines, or 2.) to already have been in the field for many years and have the actual experience under your belt.
There does appear to me to be a distinction between indepenent paralegal providing services directly to clients such as Martin Legal Services, who wrote regarding his practice as discussed in this post, and freelance paralegals who work for attorneys as independent contractors rather than employees such a Outsourced Paralegal Services, who I discussed in a previous post.
There is a real question of whether there would be adequate protection to the public in a case where someone with minimum education and experiences attempting to establish a practice as a truly independent paralegal. It is far too likely that serious mistakes will be made when an undereducated, inexpereinced practitioner in any field attempts to practice without superision. One problem with which the paralegal legal professions still must deal is the fact that there  is, in most jurisdictions, no clear statement of what is “adequate” education and experiences to hold oneself out as a paralegal.
There are also dangers to the profession should the public not be well served in such circumstances. First, the perception of the paralegal profession as a whole is affected when members of the public suffer from such mistakes. Ultimately enough incidences will lead to a demand for regulation. Regulations as a reaction to an accumlation of such incidences rather than as a well-thought out effort to establish paralegals as a profession, it seems to me, is not likely to serve the best interest of the profession or the public.