Being a paralegal definitely has its benefits. Paralegals develop an understanding of how the legal system works, knowledge of laws, cases, and legal procedures, and often develop friendships with attorneys who are wonderful resources for legal guidance for personal legal issues, and referrals to their attorney friends.
Being a paralegal may also afford paralegals opportunities to misuse and abuse their positions. By far, the most common complaint received by the chair of PD’s Professional Ethics Committee is related to paralegals using their positions to harass, intimidate, and even threaten others.
In many of the complaints, paralegals are using firm letterhead or email addresses to send correspondence that is not related to a firm matter. At times they are using firm letterhead or email addresses to send correspondence regarding a personal matter. In other instances, paralegals are using firm letterhead and email addresses to send correspondence on behalf of a friend or family member. In both situations, the purpose is to make the recipient believe one or more of the following:
Many people are intimidated by the thought of legal proceedings, or even the threat of an attorney becoming involved in a matter. This intimidation may be the result of a negative experience with attorneys and/or the legal system, the concern that they may be forced to hire an attorney to represent them which they are worried they cannot afford, and the fear they will lose any legal battle on this issue, primarily because they do not have the resources to fight back.
Using firm letterhead or email addresses in this manner is completely unethical. If the law firm for which the paralegal works is willing to represent the paralegal, or the paralegal’s friend or family member in the matter, then an attorney with the firm should be the person to reach out to the other party. It is also unethical to imply verbally, or through any form of correspondence, that a specific attorney or law firm is involved in the matter, or will become involved in the matter, if the attorney or law firm has not already agreed to become involved.
When the chair of the PD’s Professional Ethics Committee receives a complaint alleging this type of behavior by a paralegal, it is recommended that the complainant file a complaint with the Supreme Court of Texas Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee against the paralegal, and file a grievance with the State Bar of Texas against the paralegal’s supervising attorney based on the attorney’s failure to adequately supervise the paralegal. The complainant is also advised to consult with an attorney to determine if there are any other possible legal actions that may be filed against the paralegal.
While thus far the complaints received of this type have not been against current PD members, it is wise for all paralegals to ensure they are not using their positions in an unethical manner for personal matters.
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.