The paralegal’s job is filled with challenges, but ethical concerns for paralegals permeate every facet of their professional life. It’s difficult to find a code of ethics for paralegals that is well defined and pervasive. When in doubt, paralegals can adopt the ethics code that is defined by their paralegal association. Organizations like NALA have a Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility that can guide many ethics-based decisions for paralegals. Review this list of ethics issues for paralegals to learn more about how these concerns affect your profession.
Don’t believe that your personal life has no bearing on your professional life. Paralegals are expected to adhere to certain standards of behavior. A felony conviction can mean the loss of a job. Some firms won’t hire a paralegal who has several misdemeanors. Even credit ratings are occasionally reviewed because a history of unpaid bills may suggest instability. Clearly, it’s almost as important for paralegals to behave ethically in their private lives as they do in their professional ones.
Regardless of how experienced you are or how certain you are of the answer, it’s never acceptable for a paralegal to provide legal advice. This includes those Friday afternoons when the attorney is out and a long-time client calls with an urgent question. No matter how well you know what the lawyer would say, gently remind the caller that you are a paralegal and not qualified to provide legal advice. Then, look for a way to put the client in touch with the attorney or another practitioner.
If you move from one law firm to another, one of the first things you’ll want to do is review a client list. This tells you whether or not your new firm is representing a client adverse to a client that is being represented by your old firm. Disclose any potential conflicts to the attorney. You may be able to get a waiver from one of the parties or you may have to excuse yourself from that matter. Saying nothing is not an option. You don’t want your new employer to catch you in unethical behavior during your first weeks on the job.
Attorney/client privilege is imperative, but so is the confidentiality between paralegals and clients. You have the same duty as a lawyer to not disclose the details of a case to anyone. Sharing what you know about a client with your significant other, best friend or mother is rarely advisable. No matter how disinterested or neutral that other person may be, you never know how one person can be connected to others. That’s especially true in this era of social media. Keep your clients’ secrets, and you’ll have no cause to worry.
During your career, it’s possible that you’ll encounter lawyers, paralegals and clients who will ask you to abandon your ethics “just this once,” to help them. This is never a good idea, as it tends to lead to further requests. If someone is pressuring you to do something that is unethical or illegal, take the matter up with the managing partner, the other practitioners or the office manager. Failing that, you may need to take the issue up with the state bar association or other regulatory organization.
Paralegals are trained to meet professional challenges with aplomb. When you’re aware of common ethical concerns for paralegals, you’ll be prepared to overcome these issues.