The primary theme of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird is the coexistence of good and evil. As part of the legal profession, paralegals are witnesses to both the good and the bad in our society. Even if the area of law in which you work does not usually involve disputes, you have likely had positive and negative experiences with the parties and attorneys involved, as well as court and agency personnel.
The moral voice of Harper Lee’s novel is attorney Atticus Finch. Despite experiencing evil, Atticus maintains his faith in people’s ability to do the right thing. As a father, Atticus tries to educate his children about doing the right thing, even if it is difficult and unpopular, and also tries to explain to his children the evil they witness and experience.
Ethics is one of the most important attributes and requirements for members of the legal profession. One is either ethical or not. One cannot pick and choose when to be ethical or which rules to follow. Paralegals should stay far away from the unethical line so as to avoid accidentally committing an ethical violation, and to avoid the appearance of impropriety. As paralegals, we are responsible for knowing and following not only the ethics rules for paralegals, but also the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys.
One of the requirements of the ethics rules is the obligation to report even suspected ethics violations to the appropriate party. That may be something as simple as educating a fellow paralegal that something she is doing is unethical, advising a supervising attorney of an issue, making an ethics complaint against a member of the Paralegal Division, or submitting an issue to the State Bar UPL Committee.
As paralegals, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves regarding ethics rules as well as to help educate other paralegals about ethics. We also have an obligation to always do the right thing. That includes admitting our mistakes, not taking credit for the work of others, maintaining professionalism, and making sure our actions are above reproach.
The character of Atticus Finch is revered for being the personification of an ethical attorney who truly cares about his client, always does the right thing, even when it is difficult and unpopular, and who rises above the negative and evil actions of others. Although Atticus Finch is an attorney, the substance and motivations of his character are ones to which not only members of the legal profession, but everyone, should aspire.
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Paralegal Division and a past president of the Division. She is a frequent speaker on paralegal ethics and intellectual property and the lead author of the Division’s Paralegal Ethics Handbook published by Thomson Reuters.