What would we do without our legal vendors? From local process servers and national record retrieval companies, to Lexis, Westlaw, and outside or local counsel, paralegals have the opportunity to interact with many vendors. Whether it is determining which e-discovery vendor to use, or from which caterer to order lunch, paralegals are often the ones who recommend and in many cases, choose which vendor to use. Attorneys rely on paralegals to research vendors and often to be the primary contact with vendors. There are many benefits to working closely with vendors including developing trust, having a vendor who already knows and understands your specific requirements, and perhaps having the opportunity to obtain special pricing.
While paralegals appreciate legal vendors, the vendors also value the business paralegals provide. Many vendors make the effort to express their gratitude by offering a gift for giving them their business. With direct, and sometimes the exclusive, access to vendors used by the supervising attorney, such gifts may be given to the paralegal. However, before accepting a gift, paralegals should consider the following:
Does your firm, corporation, or agency have a policy on gifts from vendors? Such policies often restrict the monetary worth of gifts, require gifts be disclosed or reported, and may require advance permission before gifts over a certain amount may be accepted.
Even if your employer doesn’t have a policy regarding gifts from vendors, is the monetary worth of the gift large enough to make you uncomfortable, or might it make your employer uncomfortable?
Is the gift something that cannot be retained, such as a meal with the vendor? Policies regarding gifts from vendors often make an exception for meals with the vendor.
Is the gift a “thank you” to a regular client, such as an annual holiday gift, or is it a gift that is earned by placing a particular number of orders with the vendor? If the latter, there may be a question as to whether a particular vendor is being used just to earn the reward rather than considering whether use of a particular vendor is in the best interest of the assignment and the client.
If more than one non-attorney is working on the case, which one should receive the gift? And since the attorney, firm, agency, or corporation is actually the vendor’s client, should someone else, such as the attorney, receive the gift?
The National Court Reporters Association has addressed the issue of the possible appearance of favoritism by a reporter by including the following provision in its Code of Professional Ethics stating its members shall:
Refrain from giving, directly or indirectly, any gift, incentive, reward, or anything of value to attorneys, clients, or their representatives or agents, except for items that do not exceed $100 in the aggregate per recipient each year.
Canon 9 of the Paralegal Division’s Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility states that paralegals shall “maintain a high standard of ethical conduct.” While it is always wonderful to receive a gift, it would be wise to discuss with the supervising attorney or office manager whether the organization has a gift policy and if not, whether one should be put in place. No gift is worth compromising your, or your employer’s, ethics.
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.