What if your attorney tells you to be unethical?

Let’s face it, there are bad apples in every profession. Attorneys, however, are responsible and accountable to the American Bar Association, when it comes to allegations of unethical behavior. Worse yet, the attorneys you work for may direct you to take actions that make you complicit in their unethical acts. This can be unnerving to say the least.  

So, what do you do if an attorney you work for asks you to do something unethical? Here are some helpful tips on how to survive this kind of professional nightmare. 

Know what to look for 

Chances are, if an attorney in your office is acting unethically, you’ll have a good sense of that, even if you can’t pinpoint the exact ethical rule that they are violating. If you find yourself questioning the conduct of your attorneys frequently, take the time to research common ethical missteps by lawyers in your practice area. Also, take the time to peruse the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. That way, if the problem becomes big enough that you feel you have to report it to someone, you’ll have confidence that the conduct you’re reporting is a true ethical violation. You’ll also know the right procedures to take. 

Know your limits 

The most common way attorneys direct paralegals to act unethically is by expecting them to engage in the unauthorized practice of law. In fact, if you’re a paralegal with above-average skills, it can almost be guaranteed this has happened to you.  

It typically looks something like this: You’re a superstar paralegal in your office. You not only work hard but you seem to understand the practice of law as well, if not better, than some of the attorneys you work with. Eventually, one of the partners notices your advanced skills and starts giving you “extra” assignments. After a while, they trust you so much that you find yourself doing things like writing entire motions, which they sign without review, and files with the court.   

You might even be flattered by this attorney’s trust in you. Who can blame you? You’ve worked hard and you’re good at what you do. Notwithstanding the boost to your ego, you’ve got to put a stop to this. 

Fortunately, this can be a relatively simple ethical dilemma to fix. First, read up on what you can and cannot do without supervision. Then, take steps to ensure that your attorney does review your work. Say things like, “Hey, I am a little unsure about the argument I made in Section 2 of this brief … Can you look it over?” This may prompt the attorney to provide the supervision of your work that the ethics rules require. 

If not, you may have to report your concerns to someone further up the ladder. If your firm has a Human Resources department, start there. If there are attorneys with greater seniority than the one you’re working with, ask to speak to them. Just remember, this is a delicate situation. Attorneys are very touchy about allegations of unethical conduct. Report the facts, do so without much fanfare or emotion, and remain professional throughout. 

Hold on to the evidence 

Regardless of the type of unethical conduct you’re dealing with, you need to hold on to any evidence you have that proves the misconduct. Back when I was a senior associate, I worked at a firm where I was tasked with reviewing client bills before they were finalized and mailed. After a few months of performing this task, I started to notice a disturbing trend. Certain partners were billing one well-off client for up to eight hours of work per day while not actually working on the case. 

At this time, I chose to note the evidence that supported what I knew. When you’re in a position like this where you recognize misconduct, it’s best to weigh your options and consider how it could affect you professionally. If you have concerns about there being ongoing or bigger ethical concerns, chances are, you should look at other opportunities. This is about picking your battles so that you can protect yourself and remain focused on what’s most important: your career. 

Be prepared to walk away 

Sadly, some attorneys simply refuse to play by the rules. Unless you work in a large firm with a proactive Human Resources department, your report of ethical concerns may lead to an uncomfortable environment for you—or worse. The truth is, you probably don’t want to remain working for ethics violators anyway. Their misdeeds will eventually catch up to them and you simply don’t want to be associated with the stain of their behavior. 

Some ethical violations may be so frequent or so egregious that you have to report the conduct to a State Ethics Board. If that’s the case, the job simply isn’t one you should keep anyway. Make your report, move on, and pat yourself on the back for not being complicit in unethical behavior. 

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