Paralegal Ethics: A Few Things To Keep In Mind
Law, by its very nature, is a field that is often rife with conflicting interests, where people's lives, livelihoods, careers, and property are constantly at stake. Being the case, it is essential that paralegal ethics be understood and followed in order to maintain maximum fairness and integrity, and to help ensure justice for all parties involved.
It is no surprise that the legal community takes ethics violations very seriously. There has been much written about ethics, in law and otherwise, because there is so much to learn and understand. Many paralegal programs have courses dedicated to legal ethics because it is paramount that paralegals are aware of the ethical standards regarding legal work. While the use of common sense and good judgement is a good rule of thumb to follow when deliberating ethics, there is still a lot of gray area where knowing and following precedents will be required for maintaining your highest ethical standards.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), a professional organization of paralegals and paralegal associations, has a code of ethics model that covers the subject pretty thoroughly, although it is written in a very legalese manner. The PDF can be found here.
Avoiding the Unauthorized Practice of Law
As a paralegal you are not allowed to have clients of your own, and if you try to do too much you may end up over-stepping your boundaries. Sometimes you may want to help a client so much that you begin performing tasks that only a licensed attorney may perform. As long as you are properly supervised by a licensed attorney, you can perform many tasks on behalf of the client, although some of the things you are allowed to do may vary from state to state.
Maintaining Client Confidentiality
You will have access to a lot of personal and private information, and it is your duty to protect the confidentiality of that information. You cannot share a client's confidential information with anyone, including their family, the judge, opposing lawyers, or the media. It can only be discussed between you, the paralegal, and the supervising attorney who represents the client and supervises your work.
Disclosing Your Paralegal Status
In order for a client not to mistake you for a licensed attorney you must clearly indicate that you are a paralegal when dealing with him or her. It is your duty to make sure the clients you work with know your role and responsibilities in the case.
Reporting Ethics Violations of Other Legal Professionals
If you have knowledge of fraud, deceit, dishonesty, or misrepresentation on the part of another legal professional, it is your duty to disclose that information to the proper person, usually your supervising attorney. If the person committing the ethical violation happens to be your supervising attorney, they you may have to report the problem to his or her supervisor, another trusted attorney, or the state bar association.
Disclosing Information to Prevent Death or Serious Bodily Harm
In situations when you have information that, if disclosed, may prevent a client from committing an act that could result in death or serious bodily harm, then disclosing that information will override any client confidentiality rules.
Sharing Information with Your Supervising Attorney
Since you are not allowed to have clients of your own, you must share all information with the attorney who represents the client. You can get into serious trouble if you were to establish a secretive and improper relationship with a client that comes between a client and his or her attorney.
Avoiding Conflicts of Interest
You must always work for your client's benefit by avoiding any conflict of interests whether legal, personal, or business related. A paralegal who works on a contract basis for several different attorneys cannot provide work for the attorney of the plaintiff and the attorney of the defendant in the same case.
Obeying All Applicable Attorneys' Ethics Rules
As a paralegal, you will also need to adhere to the rules of ethics that apply to attorneys since you will often be performing tasks that are normally performed by a licensed attorney.
Giving Something to the Community: Pro Bono Services
In an effort to expand the greater good, some paralegal codes of ethics call for paralegals to aspire to contribute volunteer hours to people of limited means or to the organizations that help them.
Making Your Voice Heard: Supporting Efforts to Improve the Legal System
Throughout your career as a paralegal you may find aspects of the legal system that could use some reform. Whether it's lobbying politicians to pass laws that enhance victims' rights, or staying up all hours of the night to strengthen a clients case, you should should make a concentrated effort to promote fairness and justice.