What most of you probably know, but few lawyers do, is that the Legal Assistants Division has it's own procedures for taking disciplinary actions against a Division member who violates the Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility (the "Code"), adopted by the Division in 1982. Other instances which might result in a finding of professional misconduct are: willful misrepresentation of a material fact in the application for membership; conviction of a felony; conviction of a misdemeanor involving theft, embezzlement or fraudulent misappropriation of money; suspension or revocation of a license to practice a professional occupation; expulsion or termination of membership in a law-related professional association; or permanent injunctive decree or judgment granted in favor of the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee of the Texas Supreme Court.
Other than a few articles about ethics over the last several years, not much has been mentioned about the Division's disciplinary procedures. But as our profession grows and develops, it is imperative that we take notice of actions going on around us, because one member's misconduct ultimately affects us all. Ethics defines professionalism. The standards to which we hold ourselves as legal assistants are meaningless without consequences for violating those standards. And I believe that it is extremely important that the legal community, and the public, be made aware that such standards exist and actions are taken if violations occur.
Membership in the Division is voluntary, and upon applying for membership, each applicant agrees to be bound by the Code and the disciplinary procedures. The disciplinary procedures are found in Section III of the Standing Rules of the Division. As of this date, the Standing Rules are being reviewed and proposed revisions are being drafted for the consideration of the Board of Directors in June. But the principles behind the existing disciplinary procedures will remain the same: violation of the Code by a member of the Division, after proper investigation and proof shown of such violation, should result in action being taken against that member. The action could take the form of a private reprimand, public reprimand, suspension of membership or termination of membership in the Division.
Following is a synopsis of the grievance and disciplinary procedures of the Division. Reading it may seem somewhat boring, but I can assure you, if you are personally involved in a grievance procedure, either against you, or someone you know, it will not be boring. If you have chosen this profession as a career, a lot is riding on the investigation and findings of the Grievance Committee.
- A complaint must be made in writing, and sent to the Executive Director of the Division. The Executive Director will then forward the complaint to the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee who will ask the Board of Directors of the Division to appoint a Grievance Committee to investigate the allegations contained in the complaint. A copy of the complaint is sent to the legal assistant against whom the complaint was brought. All records of grievance matters shall remain confidential and be maintained under strict security.
- The Committee will follow certain guidelines in conducting the investigation, which shall include: interviewing the complainant; interviewing the legal assistant against whom the complaint was lodged; interviewing the verifying attorney on the legal assistant's application, if necessary; interviewing all persons identified by the complainant and legal assistant who have knowledge of relevant facts; and any other investigation that may prove necessary.
- Upon conclusion of the investigation, a hearing will be scheduled and the legal assistant notified of the date, time and place of such hearing. The legal assistant is given the opportunity to respond in writing to the allegations in the complaint. At the hearing, witnesses may testify under oath, to present evidence for or against the complaint; the legal assistant has the right to be present, with or without counsel, if desired. Any legal representation of the legal assistant shall be at that person's own expense. All testimony shall be given out of the presence of the other testifying witnesses.
After said hearing, the Grievance Committee will make a determination of "No Professional Misconduct" or "Professional Misconduct" and shall include a recommendation for disciplinary sanctions. A majority finding of "'No Professional Misconduct"' shall be final, and the legal assistant shall be notified of such finding. A finding of "Professional Misconduct" is sent to the legal assistant, and the legal assistant has the opportunity to appeal said finding. There is an appeals process that follows similar guidelines to the hearing process. If at the conclusion a finding of "Professional Misconduct" stands, then the Board of Directors meets to act as a Disciplinary Committee to review the recommendations of the Grievance Committee and determine the sanctions to be taken against the member.
A private reprimand shall require the legal assistant to appear before the Disciplinary Committee and receive the reprimand and any conditions in connection therewith. The identity of the legal assistant shall remain confidential.
A public reprimand shall include the announcement at open session of a meeting of the Board of Directors of the reprimand, and the name and county of place of business of the legal assistant shall be published to the general membership.
If the Disciplinary Committee determines that the member should be expelled from the Division and membership terminated, the determination shall be announced at open session and the name, and county of place of business of the legal assistant shall be published to the general membership. The legal assistant shall be notified of the sanction imposed.
It is one of the goals of this author to make the legal community and the public aware that we do, in fact, have grievance procedures in place to assure that the high standards of professionalism we profess are adhered to.
One last suggestion, one which I regret the necessity to make, but feel that it is important to bring to your attention for the protection of the legal community and your clients‹when interviewing prospective legal assistants for employment at your firm, you might want to consider doing a check of the applicant's criminal background. There have been instances of legal assistants being hired who did not disclose to their employers that they had been convicted, some more than once, of a felony. Checking the background of prospective employees may seem somewhat distasteful, but I believe that an applicant who is forthright and honest won't mind, and only those with something to hide will object. If you have any thoughts, feedback, personal experiences or suggestions regarding the subject matter of this article, or anything which involves professional ethics, I would appreciate hearing from you; by mail at 1201 Elm St., #4242, Dallas, TX 75270; or phone (214) 744-4620; or fax (214) 748-6567.
Kay Redburn is a legal assistant with the Dallas firm of McCurley, Webb, Kinser & Nelson. She is currently the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Legal Assistants Division.
If you have any questions regarding any ethical issue, please contact the Professional Ethics Committee.
Originally published in the Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright 1996 by the Legal Assistants Division, State Bar of Texas.