Whether paralegals work independently or are employed by law firms, governmental agencies, or corporations, their responsibilities involve diverse ethical considerations and rules. According to the National Association of Paralegals, ‘a paralegal must adhere strictly to the accepted standards of legal ethics and to the general principles of proper conduct.’
Here are five ethical dilemmas that paralegals encounter in their work:
As paralegals gain experience and more knowledge about the law and the legal field, they are, not surprisingly, able to answer many common questions asked by clients. Answering those questions, however, could very easily be construed as giving legal advice. While paralegals may very well be intellectually equipped to give a response, legally they are not. Paralegals should not respond, except to inform the client that they will relay their questions to the attorney. When talking with clients 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 law.
Maintaining client confidentiality, of course, is one of the most important ethical responsibilities of the paralegal. Confidentiality is a client right. Compromising it is not only unethical; but it may affect the case, especially if the opposing side were to obtain information that would help their argument. If you share what you learn about a client with any outside person, as neutral as that person might seem, this violates client privilege. Furthermore, a violation of confidentiality can lead to dismissal, because everything that a paralegal does is supposed to be under the supervision of an attorney. If your actions make the lawyer look bad, your reputation as a paralegal will be tarnished.
Supervising Attorney Reviewing the Paralegal’s Work
As noted above, everything that a paralegal does is considered to be under attorney supervision. If it is not under attorney supervision, it is not considered paralegal work. Even if a lawyer trusts you enough to let some things by, insist that they check all of your work. This ensures that they are aware that if anything goes wrong, they are the one who ‘green-lighted’ the matter, leaving you in the clear.
Role of Technology
Ever-evolving technology is presenting new and increasingly complex ethical issues for paralegals and lawyers. For instance, giving legal advice or exchanging information via social media, e-mail, or voicemail can become a thorny issue because you cannot be certain of whom you are speaking to. In addition, legal jurisdiction is being blurred because of the long arm of the internet.
Conflicts of Interest
It is vitally important that paralegals – and others in the legal field – ensure that no conflicts of interest exist in their cases. Paralegals who find any should immediately bring them to the attention of the attorney. As a case proceeds, an opposing legal team could present conflict of interest evidence and win the case on that aspect alone. For example, this kind of violation occurs when you work for two clients with opposing interests, because you may have information that could be detrimental to one or the other. A conflict also exists even if you no longer work for one of those clients.
A paralegal is someone who performs delegated legal work for which a lawyer is ultimately responsible.