Lawyer Unethical Conduct – What Do You Do? guest author: Dean R. Dietrich
While not common, there certainly are instances where a paralegal observes behavior by a supervising lawyer that may rise to a level of unethical conduct. This places the paralegal in a very challenging position because the supervising lawyer may not believe that his/her behavior is unethical but the law firm expects the paralegal to report the situation to protect the interests of the law firm. What should the paralegal do?
The easiest but perhaps the most challenging strategy is to confront the lawyer or at least bring some information to the attention of the lawyer because he/she may not understand or appreciate that the conduct could be viewed as a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct. This, of course, will depend upon the nature of the conduct and the apparent intentions of the lawyer. If that option is not available, the paralegal should consider whether the law firm has a managing partner or ethics counsel that can be consulted about the situation on an anonymous basis as long as the managing partner or ethics counsel agrees to address the issue in some fashion. The paralegal may be relieved and comfortable that the matter is being addressed by another attorney. If that is not an option, the paralegal could report the matter to the lawyer regulatory authorities who will often take reports on an anonymous basis in order to address lawyer conduct on a proactive basis.
This is a very challenging area because the paralegal needs to think about employment security as well as the integrity of his/her practice as a paralegal. This is similar to the situation of in-house counsel who feels an obligation to report on the conduct of the corporate managers which could result in loss of employment. A paralegal is not subject to the duty to report on the conduct of a supervising attorney as an attorney may be required to report on the conduct of another attorney or the conduct of a client. Making the decision to follow up and report on the situation requires the paralegal to recognize the importance of the integrity of his/her profession over and above the security of his/her employment.
Dean R. Dietrich is a shareholder with Ruder Ware, L.L.S.C., chairs the firm’s Employment, Benefits, & Labor Relations Practice Group. He has represented attorneys in matters before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Office of Lawyer Regulation and has consulted with numerous law firms and lawyers regarding compliance with the Rules of Professional Conduct. He serves as Chair of the State Bar Committee on Professional Ethics in addition to past service on the Committee appointed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review changes to Supreme Court Rules Chapter 20, the Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys. Mr. Dietrich is a graduate of Marquette University Law School.