It happens rarely, if ever, to most of us. But when it happens, it can be upsetting, disheartening, and even scary. Sometimes you only witness it, other times you are asked to cover it up, take the blame, or even participate. So, what do you do when your attorney does something unethical, or asks you to do it?
You Are the Witness
There you are, just doing your job, when you overhear your attorney tell opposing counsel that the document was already produced when you know it wasn’t. If you feel your boss could be making an honest error, whisper to him that the document wasn’t produced and offer to get him a copy of the transmittal letter or other proof. Always assume that your attorney is just mistaken but try not to correct him in front of others (no one enjoys being embarrassed). If your attorney ignores you or brushes you off, show him the proof when you are alone. Perhaps pointing out his error will encourage him to rectify his statement to opposing counsel.
Suppose your attorney takes on a client which you believe has conflicts with another of your attorney’s cases or clients. Even though you point this out to the attorney, he tells you there isn’t any conflict and not to worry about it. Since the area of conflicts and disqualification can be quite fuzzy, it is probably safe to let the attorney’s decision stand. If you think the attorney is purposely ignoring an obvious conflict, try to alert another attorney in the firm.
You Are Asked to Cover
A paralegal friend was once asked by an attorney to replace a document in a group of documents already produced with a copy of the same document, but with additional pages. Although she understood the attorney thought it was just an easy way to correct an inadvertent oversight, the paralegal explained she couldn’t do that. She did offer to write a letter to opposing counsel explaining the oversight and enclosing a copy of the now complete document. Fortunately, after some reflection, the attorney decided that the paralegal’s suggestion was the best way to handle the situation.
You Are Blamed
Another friend found out that her attorney had told the client that some incorrect information the attorney had provided had come from the paralegal. However, the correct information had been given to the attorney but he had misread it. Even though the attorney was just trying to save face by blaming someone else, the paralegal later explained to the attorney that by blaming her, he could be affecting her reputation with the client and the firm.
You Are Asked to Participate
Suppose your attorney arranges to have a document translated into English. When the translation comes back, some of the information in the document is damaging to your case. Your attorney then asks you to put pressure on the translator to adjust the translation to indicate something more favorable, perhaps not completely changing the translation, but using the defense of other ways to phrase the translation to hide the true meaning of the document. Even before attempting to get the translator to agree to the change, you should tell your attorney you do not want to take responsibility for that and why. If the attorney still wants it done, he should do it himself, relieving you of that responsibility.
In a more serious situation, an attorney (who is now in prison) once asked his paralegal to let him put a trust fund in her name. She refused and was fired. Eventually it was discovered that the attorney, who was serving as trustee of the trust fund, had been embezzling money from the account. If the paralegal had agreed, she could have also been implicated in this crime.
What if you witness something unethical (or discover it)? In almost all instances, the first thing you should do is tell your attorney (as politely as possible) of the error and offer ways to correct the problem. If the attorney refuses to correct it, try bringing the matter to the attention of another attorney in the firm. If that doesn’t produce any results and it is a serious violation, you may contact the State Bar. They can give you guidance on how to proceed. If you have a question about whether what your attorney is doing is ethical, you may call the SBOT Ethics Hotline at 800-532-3947.
Ethics can be a gray area, with varying degrees of seriousness. If you are uncomfortable with your attorney’s ethics (or lack of), perhaps you would be better off changing jobs. Not only is it stressful to work in that type of environment, there is always the possibility of being assumed to be the same type of person, or worse, being accused of participating. Despite the fact that legal assistants in Texas do not have a formal method of disciplining ethical violations (other than the unauthorized practice of law), we should work to correct such violations and to assist in upholding the integrity of the legal profession.
Ellen Lockwood is a legal assistant with the firm of Jenkens &Gilchrist Groce, Locke &Hebdon in San Antonio. She is a former member of the Board of Directors of the Legal Assistants Division and currently serves as Chair of the Ethics Committee.