Paralegals - Do They Have a Code of Ethics?

Laura McDonald
September 25, 2008 — 1,193 views  
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In a business sense, ethics are a system of moral principles or rules of conduct. Attorneys, paralegals, and legal assistants or secretaries have codes of ethics within the legal field. A paralegal should maintain a high degree of professionalism while performing her work. That high degree of professionalism is ensured when she manages her work duties while following a particular code of ethics.

Which ethics affect a paralegal career is best explained by reviewing the Model Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility and Guidelines for Enforcement, which was adopted in May 1993 by the National Federal of Paralegal Associations, Inc.

Section 1 of the Model Code sets forth disciplinary rules and ethical considerations for paralegals.

Section 1.1 A Paralegal Shall Achieve and Maintain a High Level of Competence.

A paralegal's competence continues to grow by education, training and on-the-job experience. The Model Code states that a paralegal should participate in a minimum of twelve hours of CLE (continuing legal education) every two years. This is an excellent way for legal assistants to stay updated on changes to laws. Her continued training should include at least one hour of ethics education. A paralegal should remain current on changes so she can help clients to the best of her ability.

Section 1.2 A Paralegal Shall Maintain a High Level of Personal and Professional Integrity.

This section deals with a paralegal's conduct regarding work matters. Paralegals should not discuss cases with court personnel in an attempt to exert influence over a ruling. They may not talk about cases to people who are represented by an attorney without that attorney's consent.

This section also deals with a paralegal's billing practices. It says basically that a legal assistant will be honest and accurate in time and expense reporting. By the way, not only is fraudulent billing unethical, it's a crime. Some of these points are no-brainers but need to be set out nonetheless.

Any cash or money accounts handled by a paralegal through his work should be reported honestly.

Section 1.3 A Paralegal Shall Maintain a High Standard of Professional Conduct.

A paralegal's conduct will be appropriate, as if he is in front of a court. He shall not engage in violence or be dishonest. He will not interfere in the administration of justice. A legal assistant won't abuse the powers of a professional position or public office.

Section 1.4 A Paralegal Shall Serve the Public Interest by Contributing to the Improvement of the Legal System and Delivery of Quality Legal Services, including Pro Bono Publico Services.

One way a paralegal can help his community is by volunteering to serve on committees which improve local legal services.

Section 1.5 A Paralegal Shall Preserve All Confidential Information Provided by the Client or Acquired From Other Sources Before, During and After the Course of the Professional Relationship.

I believe this section is the most important one for a paralegal to understand and heed. A paralegal must not discuss any confidential information about a client or case with anyone other than her boss or the client himself. What is confidential information? Why bother trying to dissect it, just don't talk about it.

It is a paralegal's responsibility to tell her boss anything she has learned about the case to assist in his representation.

Note that this section specifically states "before, during, and after the course of the professional relationship." A paralegal should not discuss a case with others even when it is concluded.

Section 1.6 A Paralegal shall Avoid Conflicts of Interest and Shall Disclose any Possible Conflict to the Employer or Client, as Well as to the Prospective Employers or Clients.

If a paralegal may have a conflict of interest in working on a case, she should inform her boss. An example of a possible conflict of interest is if the paralegal was previously employed by a law firm representing an opposing party in the same case. It is probably best that she not work on that case for her current employer at all. When it has been established that a conflict of interest is present, everyone needs to be aware of the situation and cooperate in adequately protecting the client's interests as well as the paralegal herself by not discussing the case around her and routing paperwork well away from her.

Section 1.7 A Paralegal's Title Shall Be Fully Disclosed.

A paralegal should include her title on all correspondence, business cards, formal letterhead, pamphlets or any other form of written communication. For example, her signature would read:

Sincerely,

Laura McDonald Paralegal

This eliminates any possible confusion over what her position is. Some people may assume she is an attorney, and expect or demand more from her than her position allows. This could create major problems, and brings us to our next ethical issue.

Section 1.8 A Paralegal Shall Not Engage in the Unauthorized Practice of Law.

The best rule of thumb to follow is: paralegals may not give legal advice. Check with your local jurisdiction on any possible variances, but basically it means leaving the legal advice giving to the attorneys.

About the Author:

Are you fascinated by trials? Do you like helping people? A career as a Paralegal is challenging, rewarding, and NEVER boring. Sign up for free newsletters that show you how to step into this exciting career. Adventures await you....

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Laura McDonald is a paralegal. She is a member of NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations). Laura is experienced in the areas of personal injury, civil litigation, family, environmental and corporate law, estate planning and bankruptcy. She works for Michael L. Hawkins & Associates, P.L.L.C., located in Frankfort, Kentucky. The firm's website is http://www.mlhlawky.com

Laura McDonald