Rules of conduct for paralegals
Paralegals work under the direction and supervision of lawyers, so they are bound by the same ethical rules of conduct as lawyers. While a paralegal who breaks the rules may be subject to discipline through his or her employer, up to and including termination of employment, it is the attorney who supervises the wayward paralegal who risks sanctions for the paralegal’s conduct through the state Bar that licensed the attorney. State bar discipline can include suspension or disbarment. While most paralegals take pride in their ethical behavior, attorneys who supervise them must take responsibility for their conduct.
What is a paralegal
According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), a paralegal is “a person, qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer.” Because paralegals perform legal work, they must be supervised by a licensed lawyer.
The NFPA publishes a Model Code of Ethics and professional Responsibility for paralegals. Because the paralegal profession has so much in common with the attorney profession, the Model Code in many ways mirrors the rules of professional responsibility established for attorneys.
Summary of the Model Code
The Model Code focuses on a paralegal’s education and integrity. Because the state of law changes through time, the Code requires paralegals to participate in ongoing legal education throughout their careers and to perform all assignments promptly and diligently. Paralegals must disclose their status as paralegals, and not lawyers, to clients, opposing parties, and the court.
Paralegals are subject to the same ethical rules as attorneys: they must maintain client information in confidence; they must not engage in substantive ex parte, or one-sided, communication with a judge or court staff; they must avoid conflicts of interest between clients.
Paralegals must also report unethical behavior when they observe it. For example, if a paralegal’s attorney-manager has committed unethical behavior, a paralegal may have a duty to report that behavior to authorities. Similarly, a paralegal who has knowledge of future criminal activity must report it to authorities.
The Model Code recommends that attorneys contribute 24 hours of service to the less fortunate. The legal profession calls this “pro bono” or “for the good” work. A paralegal need not provide paralegal services to satisfy this requirement; paralegals may volunteer for community service at a food bank, homeless shelter, youth center, or the like.
Consequences of violating the Model Code
Membership in the NFPA is voluntary. A paralegal who belongs to the NFPA can be disciplined by the NFPA. Disciplinary sanctions may include a letter of reprimand, imposition of a fine, a requirement that the paralegal take additional ethical education courses, and, in the case of criminal activity by a paralegal, referral to law enforcement for potential criminal investigation.