Written by: Daniel Goodson // Sep 29, 2020
Last updated: Jan 17, 2023
Serving as a paralegal is a rewarding way to serve clients and make a real difference in their lives. As you carry out your role, though, it’s important to be aware of common paralegal ethics violations that can lead to serious consequences.
Even if you unintentionally make these mistakes, you could harm both your legal career and your firm. In some cases, you could actually find yourself on the wrong side of the law. To help ensure you continue to find success in your law career, we’re sharing the most common ethics issues paralegals must face.
Failing to Recognize Paralegal Issues Threatening Client Confidentiality
When working as a paralegal, you’ll have access to personal details and information about your clients. Much like attorney-client privilege, which protects the confidentiality of this information and communications about it, paralegal issues can arise when it comes to maintaining the confidentiality of this information. Attorney-client privilege extends to paralegals as well, which means you must carefully protect all forms of client information:
- Written communications and documents
- Verbal and nonverbal communications with the client
- Verbal communication regarding the client that may be overheard
- Electronic and hard copy files
- Electronic communications, including emails and social media
It’s important to note that this client confidentiality should be maintained even if you exit your role as a paralegal with a particular firm and no longer serve their clients.
Performing Legal Duties Outside Your Scope of Work
As a paralegal, you may be asked to perform job duties that fall outside your scope as a professional. Not only is this an unethical request from your superiors, it may be illegal. There are reasons some legal duties are reserved for attorneys. Failure to heed those restrictions, even at the request of your superiors, can land you in trouble.
One of the most common ethical dilemmas in business, and a dilemma that you may frequently face as a paralegal, is offering advice that is beyond your knowledge and experience. Even with the best intentions, you may accidentally find yourself violating this rule when answering legal questions from your clients. Although you may know the answers to their legal questions, it’s important to defer to the attorney handling the case.
Failing to Disclose You Are Employed as a Paralegal
This error of omission may be the easiest to avoid because it simply requires you to be transparent. One of the reasons failing to disclose your role as a paralegal presents such an ethical violation is because it may employ a purposeful act of deception to mislead vulnerable individuals.
Depending on the type of law firm you work for, you may speak to individuals who have been injured or wronged. They may need a host of services to get their lives back on track, including medical, insurance, and financial assistance, and misleading them about the services you can offer could put them in a worse position.
This is where your role as a legal professional and marketer may get blurry. Although it can be tempting to promise assistance in all these areas as a way to secure new clients, it’s important you disclose your role as a paralegal first.
Choosing Not to Report Conflicts of Interest
Aside from presenting an ethical dilemma, conflicts of interest could impact legal decisions. If you notice that you are working with two clients with opposing interests, it becomes your responsibility to report this immediately.
Although a conflict of interest could arise naturally in any legal firm, it is very common when paralegals begin working for another firm. Although you may bring a host of valuable information to your new position, former client details should not be included. Sharing information about your former clients that could be of real benefit to your new firm is a major ethical violation. Again, it is vital you immediately disclose these conflicts as soon as you are aware that they exist.
Starting Your Paralegal Career Off Right
Benefits of becoming a paralegal include the opportunity to enter a challenging and rewarding career where you get to make tangible impacts on the lives of your clients. The key is to get comprehensive training from respected law practitioners who can help you recognize and avoid the common ethical issues that you may face.
If you’re looking to start or advance in your career, USF’s Paralegal Certificate Program may be right for you. It was designed by paralegals, attorneys and judges from across the country, and it’s taught by a faculty of judges. When you join, you’ll gain the knowledge and skills that paralegals use every day. The best part is this program is offered in a live online format and can be completed at your own pace. Learn more about this program today.