Canon 8 of the Code of Ethics of the Legal Assistants Division states as follows:
A legal assistant shall maintain a high standard of ethical conduct and shall contribute to the integrity of the paralegal profession.
We probably all understand this canon as it relates to the performance of our job duties. However, there may be ethical considerations regarding personal problems and situations that may have as much of an effect on your job performance as your paralegal uties.
Of course, our attorneys don’t pay us to be friends with our coworkers. They don’t even pay us to like each other. They do pay us to have good working relationships with our coworkers to enable us to get our work done.
If you have difficulty getting along with someone, there are many ways to try to improve that relationship. However, if you have tried everything and cannot work with someone, you will have to decide how to handle that and whether to notify your attorney or office manager.
If you do decide to notify your supervisor or office manager, begin by stressing your difficulties in being able to do your work. Complaints about a coworkers’ personality are inappropriate and will most likely not elicit the response you need. Examples of problems that prevent you accomplishing your duties such as delays in having correspondence or other documents routed to you, constantly changing instructions after a project is assigned, or even completed, or dumping last-minute assignments on you that were the coworkers’ responsibility, should be described in an unemotional manner, citing the difficulties such situations cause you.
You will probably also be asked what you suggest to rectify the situation. Perhaps a memo to all personnel clarifying office procedures would make your point, or a team or all-secretary or paralegal meeting to review these procedures. Asking to have your coworker brought in to be called down may only make your problems worse, but a meeting with you, your coworker, and someone else to act as mediator may allow everyone to vent their feelings and discuss ways to resolve the issue. If a reassignment of you or your coworker is all that will correct the situation, ask, but realize that is a drastic step that most supervisors are reluctant to take.
Just as it would be wonderful to be able to leave your work problems at the office when you go home each day, it would be equally wonderful to be able to leave your personal problems at home when you go to work. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work that way.
If you are having a personal situation that is going to involve taking more than a couple of days off from work, you would probably be wise to speak to your attorney and your office manager about the situation. Even if you have the time available to take (vacation, personal, sick leave, compensatory time), a general explanation will help your supervisors understand your need to be gone. Details are not only usually not necessary in these instances, they can also work against you. It is no one’s business exactly why you have to be off if it is a one-time event.
If it is an ongoing problem, you should be as honest as possible, without providing unnecessary details, about the time you will need to be away from the office, the expected duration of the situation, the effect it will have on your ability to handle your work load, and any suggestions you have for how to cover your assignments, if necessary.
If your personal problems are such that you feel your ability to handle your work is suffering, regardless of whether you have a specific situation that requires you to take time off from work, you should consider discussing this with your attorney and office manager. Perhaps you can be assigned to less stressful duties, or assigned to just assist another paralegal, until you feel up to resuming your regular assignment. While this approach is somewhat risky because your supervisors may think your situation will be permanent, it is probably better to ask for a change of your duties before a serious problem develops, or your supervisor approaches you about a reassignment. If you continue to try to handle your assignments beyond the time you can adequately do so, you may overlook something important and cause a serious problem. In addition, your supervisors will probably respect you for coming forward to discuss your situation before any work problems develop.
Because of our ethical obligations to our clients and our attorneys, it behooves us all to consider the implications of personal problems on our ability to perform our jobs well and maintain a high ethical standard.
Ellen Lockwood, CLAS, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Legal Assistants Division, a position she has held since 1997. She is Treasurer of LAD and a past president of the Alamo Area Professional Legal Assistants in San Antonio.