Learn the Five Legal Ethics in Your Paralegal Studies Always be careful about your legal ethics: Learn why in your paralegal studies.
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 must comply with the following standards, which you’ll learn about in your paralegal studies.
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 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.
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.
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, paralegals.org, *www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2002/2002-ohio-4211.pdf