The Ethics of Reporting Unethical Behavior
by Ellen Lockwood, CLA—Ethics Chair
Paralegals often mention to me that they have witnessed or heard about another paralegal’s unethical behavior. After they describe the unethical act, I ask why they did not report it for investigation. The usual responses I receive are listed below:
I Didn’t Think It Was That Important
I have had several acquaintances tell me about the apparently unethical actions of a legal assistant in their city. They allege she continued to use her Westlaw password even when she was no longer with that employer, that she used the firm postage meter for association mailings without the firm’s permission, and several other acts. Nevertheless, none of these people, even the ones who have firsthand knowledge, including the law firm, have filed a complaint. Perhaps the law firm thinks it is too much trouble or doesn’t know it can file a complaint. The others may be concerned about having their names listed as the complainant.
This is just another version of the standard excuse, “I didn’t want to get involved.” However, if no one chooses to get involved, unethical acts will continue by that person and others since there will be no consequences to their actions. If someone’s actions make you uncomfortable, you should contact me or the current Ethics chair to ask if the incident warrants investigation.
It Has Been Too Long Since The Event
Then why didn’t you report it sooner? I agree that actions that occurred a couple of years ago are probably too old to report, but it depends on the offense. If it was egregious, such as UPL, then two years is probably not too long. It is always important to report offenses as soon as possible so they can be investigated while the information is still fresh in everyone’s minds. We all know how time dulls our memories. Again, waiting does not solve the problem. Instead it may encourage people to continue their unethical behavior since they got away with it before.
I Don’t Have Firsthand Knowledge
If you do not have firsthand knowledge of the unethical behavior, urge the person who does to report it. Remind them that by not reporting it, they are not helping the profession or the person involved. In some cases, the appropriate person to report it is an attorney or a law firm administrator. If they need more information, I (or the current Ethics chair) am available to discuss the issue and help determine whether it is appropriate to have it investigated.
I Don’t Know Whether He/She is a Member of the Division
If you are unsure whether the person is a member of the Division, contact me or the LAD Coordinator, Norma Hackler, and we will confirm the person’s membership.
Unauthorized Practice of Law
If you suspect a LAD member or anyone of UPL, please report it to the general counsel of the State Bar. If the person is a LAD member, please report it to me as well. If the person is found to have committed UPL, we will take the appropriate steps regarding that person’s membership in the Division.
As members of a profession that is not regulated in Texas, we must do everything we can to maintain high ethical standards. This includes reporting even suspected unethical behavior to the chair of the Professional 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 2001 by the Legal Assistants Division, State Bar of Texas.