A Practical Guide Regarding Our Ethical Duty to Report Uneithical Behavior
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP
Most paralegals are clear on the definition of the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL). We know not to give legal advice and make every effort to abide by the ethical canons. However, exactly what paralegals may not do isn’t always clear to members of the public.
Several states now permit legal document preparers or limited license legal technicians. Once someone has met the requirement including any required training, and registered or been licensed by the applicable state, these technicians may offer their services directly to the public. In the states that offer these positions the public may get certain types of legal assistance without having to engage an attorney.
We have had issues in Texas with members of the public thinking they can engage a non-attorney to assist them as is available in some other states. We have also had issues with non-attorneys taking advantage of those assumptions to illegally offer legal services to the public.
I was recently contacted by some paralegals who had become aware of non-attorneys who had surreptitiously set up in a county courthouse and were offering legal services such as document preparation to the public. The paralegals were unsure how to proceed.
Paralegals have an ethical duty to report unethical behavior. Several of the canons of the Paralegal Division’s Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility address this issue:
• Canon 1 of states in part that “the paralegal shall assist in preventing the unauthorized practice of law.”
• Canon 8 states that in part that paralegals “shall contribute to the integrity of the paralegal profession.”
• Canon 10 states in part that paralegals “shall do all other things incidental, necessary, or expedient to enhance professional responsibility.”
As the above indicates, it is not an option for paralegals to avoid reporting UPL and unethical behavior.
If a paralegal suspects someone is committing UPL, the best course of action is to complete the online form for the Supreme Court of Texas Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee at www.txuplc.org. All information regarding the person reporting the suspected violation is kept confidential and not revealed to the party that is the subject of the complaint. Depending on the situation, unethical behavior may be reported to your supervising attorney, local paralegal association, or the Paralegal Division. All reports should be made as soon as possible.
Many paralegals try to avoid reporting UPL and unethical behavior by offering excuses such as the following:
• Too much time has passed - While there is certainly a point at which the information is too old to be properly investigated, the passage of a few weeks or months should not deter you from reporting the information. Further, someone who is intentionally committing UPL will likely continue to do so.
• I don’t know whether the paralegal at issue is a member of the Paralegal Division or local organization. - You may always submit a question to firstname.lastname@example.org. The current ethics chair will be glad to check the PD membership roster and suggest the best course of action for reporting the unethical behavior.
• I don’t have firsthand knowledge of the situation. - If someone else has firsthand knowledge, you should urge that person to report the incident. If that person won’t report it, you should report the information you have, particularly if the issue is UPL.
• It’s not that big a deal, or alternatively, I don’t want to get involved. - It actually is a big deal. As paralegals we are bound by the ethical canons which make clear we have a duty to report UPL and other unethical behavior.
As professionals, and particularly as members of a profession that is not regulated in Texas, we must do everything we can to maintain high ethical standards, including reporting even suspected unethical behavior.
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.
If you have any questions regarding any ethical issue, please contact the Professional Ethics Committee.
Originally published in the Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright 2014 by the Paralegal Division, State Bar of Texas.