Updated: February 24, 2023
Legal ethics you’ll learn in your paralegal studies
In this Article
In the legal world, ethical behavior is of the utmost importance. Lawyers and paralegals must represent the highest ethical standards so they can realistically claim to uphold the law.
If paralegals breach legal ethics, serious sanctions can result, including suspension or revocation of your paralegal license, a fine, loss of your job, or, if there was criminal activity, referral to the appropriate authorities.
Legal ethics for paralegals are similar to those for lawyers. Paralegals have a set of ethical standards they must comply with which are detailed in the 10 canons of professionalism from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).
5 basic ethics to abide by
Chances are you’ll learn about these in detail in your paralegal studies classes, but in a nutshell here are the five most critical ethical rules you must follow as a paralegal or legal assistant:
Demonstrate professional competence and personal integrity
What this means: Paralegals are representatives of the legal profession, so they should keep their conduct above reproach, perform all assignments efficiently and constantly seek to improve their legal knowledge and skills.
How this may be violated: Accepting gifts can give the impression that you have been unduly influenced in your work. Accepting a coffee mug with a client’s logo may be appropriate, but if that client offers you a $100 gift certificate or a weekend on his yacht, you must politely refuse.
Avoid unauthorized practice of the law
What this means: Your paralegal studies will teach you that—like lawyers—you are also responsible for avoiding unauthorized practice of the law. Each state defines what constitutes the “practice of the law,” but paralegals must avoid the following tasks, which can be performed only by lawyers:
• Establishing an attorney-client relationship
• Setting the fee to be charged for legal services
• Offering a legal opinion
How this may be violated: In 2001 an Ohio paralegal represented a client in a personal injury case without attorney supervision. A judge found him in contempt for unauthorized practice of the law, and sentenced him to pay all legal fees of the case.
Always respect client privilege
What this means: Attorney-client privilege (or paralegal-client privilege) is the confidentiality under which clients can talk to their legal representatives without fear that information will be shared with people outside the legal team.
How this may be violated: If you share what you learn about a client with any outside person, as neutral as that person might seem, this violates client privilege. It is particularly important in the era of digital and cyber communications. Remember that texting and email are not secure forms of communication.
Avoid or disclose conflicts of interest
What this means: You can protect yourself on your first day of employment by asking your supervising attorney for a list of legal cases that the firm is handling. Review that list to identify the clients that you recognize from your previous paralegal jobs. If there is a potential conflict, you can ask for a waiver from one party, or excuse yourself from working on the case in question to protect both clients’ interests.
How this may be violated: If you work for two clients with opposing interests since you may have information that could be detrimental to one or the other. This is the case even if you no longer work for one of those clients.
You must disclose your paralegal status
What this means: Never assume that people know that you are a paralegal, not a lawyer. If you work for a law firm or in a corporate legal department, you’ll be surprised to see how often people assume that you are a lawyer.
How this may be violated: When talking with others (whether on the phone or in person), if you don’t preface conversations with disclaimers such as “I’m a paralegal, not a lawyer, so I can’t give legal advice,” you may not be protected from the claim that you have inadvertently participated in unauthorized practice of the law.
Case Studies and examples of paralegal ethics breaches
In the majority of cases, the supervising lawyer or law firm can take the rap for unethical paralegal conduct since paralegals are supervised by one or both parties. Here are just a couple of case studies, pulled from the 2017 American Bar Association article, “Ethical Landmines on Using Non-Lawyer Staff,” that examine two cases of paralegal misconduct:
A Georgia case, in which a law firm, upon learning that a paralegal hired six months earlier had worked for an adverse party at her previous law firm, immediately implemented screening measures to protect against the paralegal’s disclosure of any confidential information she had gained from working on the case. However, the firm did not disclose this potential conflict to opposing counsel for two months. The Georgia Supreme Court sided with the firm, citing majority approach that rejects automatic imputation (meaning to ascribe or attribute) and permits firms to implement screening measures to protect any client confidences. But the court sent back the case to determine whether the firm gave prompt notice of the conflict once it learned of the problem.
Code of ethics breach: Conflict of interest
A Massachusetts court punished a criminal defense attorney who allowed a paralegal to set up an employment discrimination practice within their law firm that was managed by the paralegal without substantial supervision. The paralegal had the authority to sign the lawyer’s name, set fees and give legal advice. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that the attorney assisted in the paralegal’s unauthorized practice of law and suspended him for a year and a day saying, “The paralegal was clearly practicing law.’” The criminal defense lawyer said he was unaware that the paralegal was practicing law, even though [paralegal] was a law graduate who had drafted and filed complaints in employment discrimination cases.
Code of ethics breach: Unauthorized practice of law
10 Canons from the National Association of Legal Assistants
While these are part of the five ethical standards, here is the complete list of ethical canons outlined by NALA: The Paralegal Association for paralegals and legal assistants:
- Canon 1:
- A paralegal must not perform any of the duties that only attorneys may perform nor take any actions that attorneys may not take.
- Canon 2:
- A paralegal may perform any task which is properly delegated and supervised by an attorney as long as the attorney is ultimately responsible to the client, maintains a direct relationship with the client and assumes responsibility for the work product.
- Canon 3:
- A paralegal must not engage in, encourage or contribute to any act which could constitute the unauthorized practice of law. This includes establishing attorney-client relationships, setting fees, giving legal advice or representing a client in court unless so authorized by that court or agency. They will not engage in conduct or take any action which would involve the attorney in a violation of professional ethics or give the appearance of professional impropriety.
- Canon 4:
- A paralegal must use discretion and professional judgment commensurate with knowledge and experience but must not render independent legal judgment in place of an attorney.
- Canon 5:
- A paralegal must disclose his or her status as a paralegal at the outset of any professional relationship with a client, attorney, court or administrative agency and personnel, or a member of the general public.
- Canon 6:
- A paralegal must strive to maintain integrity and a high degree of competency through education and training with respect to professional responsibility, local rules and practice, and through continuing education in any applicable areas of the law.
- Canon 7:
- A paralegal must protect the confidences of a client.
- Canon 8:
- A paralegal must disclose to his or her employer or prospective employer any preexisting relationship that may conflict with the interests of the employer or prospective employer and their clients.
- Canon 9:
- A paralegal must do all things incidental, necessary or expedient for the preservation of ethics and responsibilities as defined by statute or rule of court.
- Canon 10:
- A paralegal’s conduct is guided by bar association codes of professional responsibility and rules of professional conduct.
Can paralegals give any legal advice, even to friends?
No. As defined by the American Bar Association, a supervising lawyer is “responsible for taking reasonable measures to ensure that clients, courts and other lawyers are aware that a paralegal, whose services are utilized by the lawyer in performing legal services, is not licensed to practice law.”
Are paralegals and legal assistants the same? Are they bound by the same set of ethics?
Though paralegals and legal assistants are often distinguished by the fact that legal assistants may perform more administrative duties than paralegals, NALA does not distinguish between legal assistants and paralegals. Their definition states: Legal assistants, also known as paralegals, are a distinguishable group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services.
What happens if a paralegal gives legal advice or performs a duty that is only ascribed to a lawyer?
Each state has an Unauthorized Practice of Law board that reviews complaints or breaches to attorney and paralegal ethics and laws. As an example, a paralegal in Texas dispensed advice to a client that was erroneous, even though the paralegal thought the information was correct. In this case the paralegal faced civil and criminal charges.
If a paralegal commits a mistake, the law firm that employs the paralegal could be held liable. The American Bar Association says, “Delegating legal work that law practices require may, without the proper understanding of the role of your nonlawyer staff, lead to professional and ethical violations that could result in serious consequences for the lawyer and the firm.”
Take Legal Ethics Seriously
You should never take legal ethics and professional behavior for granted. If you have questions about legal ethics during your paralegal studies, ask your professor. You may find that after a few years of paralegal work, you are inclined to let some ethical considerations slide. This is precisely the moment when you must be the most vigilant about your legal ethics.
If you are ever in a situation where you suspect that legal ethics might be breached, listen to your inner voice. If you do, you will maintain your professional integrity, escape the penalties for violating ethical rules, and enjoy a long and successful paralegal career.
Sources: aba.net, nala.org, paralegals.org, supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2002/2002-ohio-4211.pdf