Ethics and Professionalism
Ethics is a big part of our professional status and it never
hurts to remind ourselves of our responsibilities
Our profession appears to be struggling toward a more professional image. Locally, legal assistant organizations are increasing education requirements and adding requirements for CLE. Nationally, paralegal educators are looking at exit exams for paralegal programs. State-wide, legal assistants are considering what sorts of efforts can be made toward restricting the use of the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal."
Individually, our personal ethical principles have much to do with how professional we are perceived to be. Listed below are common examples of unethical behavior that may not be specific addressed in the Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility of the Legal Assistants Division of the State Bar of Texas:
- Padding your time. This is adding hours onto some task to make up for time spent doing non-billable tasks. You are cheating the client.
- Double billing. This is when you bill for more hours than elapsed, such as when you sit in on a document production, but also bill for revising deposition summaries in another case. The total number of elapsed hours is five, but you bill five for the document production and three for the revisions. The total amount of time is only five hours, therefore it is not ethical to bill for more than five hours.
- Billing in advance. In order to meet your minimum billable requirement for the month, you enter your time as if you had already completed a task, assuming you will make it up later. This is lying. It also cheats the firm and the client as you will probably have to pad your time on another project later to make up for the time it takes to do the task for which you already billed.
- Blaming someone else. The someone else might be the associate, the secretary, the copy service or the runner, but you always run the risk of someone finding out. When it is discovered that you were in error, but chose to blame it on someone rather than admit your mistake, no one's impression of you will be elevated.
- Taking credit for someone else's work. Like the previous example, not only will others' impression of you suffer when you are found out, the person whose work you claimed as your own will not be eager to help you out in the future.
These are just a few examples of the daily choices we make regarding ethics. If we as legal assistants are looking for ways to increase our professionalism, we would do well to begin with focusing on our professional ethics. Canon 8 of the Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility of the Legal Assistants Division of the State Bar of Texas states, "A legal assistant shall maintain a high standard of ethical conduct and shall contribute to the integrity of the paralegal profession." Using that canon as a guide, the previously-listed examples would definitely be unethical behavior. In many instances, there is no one other than ourselves to police this behavior. However, others are often aware of our behavior and form their impressions of us and all legal assistants based on their experiences. After all, you may know many legal assistants, not only at your firm, but through previous jobs, dealings with opposing counsel, your local paralegal organization, and the LAD. The people with whom you work often only know the legal assistants at your firm. They may assume, however unjustly, that all legal assistants are like you.
Many of you may justify your less-than-ethical behavior with the knowledge that attorneys do the same and worse. Some attorneys appear to justify their behavior by stating that as long as they aren't actually violating one of the ethics rules, it isn't a problem. I recently attended an in-house ethics seminar at my firm. During the seminar, different situations were presented and attendees were given a choice of possible answers. In more than one instance, the safest answer, the answer that would not allow any possible ethical violation, was not the correct answer. Rather, the correct answer was the one that the attorney could probably "get away with" under the ethics rules. The motivation for choosing that answer often appeared to be to find a way not to violate the ethics rules,but still get the business. While that standard may have come to be accepted among many attorneys, it is probably not the sort of standard we want to set for legal assistants.
In an unregulated profession, the only standards we have are those we set for ourselves and the only person responsible for whether we meet those standards is the individual. If we expect others to view us as professionals and to treat us as professionals, we need to conduct ourselves as such. To raise our profession and its members, we must strive to meet the highest standards possible, despite there being no regulatory agency, no guidelines to which all legal assistants must adhere, no authority to which to answer. Only when we act as professionals in every area of our profession, can we truly expect others to view us as such.
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.
If you have any questions regarding any ethical issue, please contact the Professional Ethics Committee.
Originally published in the Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright 1997 by the Legal Assistants Division, State Bar of Texas.