What if your attorney tells you to be unethical?

What If Your Attorney Tells You To Be Unethical
Use these critical steps to help you stay professional, focused, and protect yourself if you’re ever faced with an attorney behaving unethically.

Unethical attorney behavior is rare, but let’s face it, there are bad apples in every profession. Attorneys are directly 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? Over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to deal with these awkward situations.

Here are some helpful tips on how to survive this kind of professional nightmare.

What exactly is unethical attorney behavior?

Unethical attorney behavior encompasses actions that breach the ABA’s established professional standards, compromising the integrity of the legal system and client trust.

This includes conflicts of interest without disclosure, misappropriation of funds, dishonesty, inadequate communication, neglecting client matters, unauthorized practice of law, billing fraud, and tampering with evidence.

Engaging in frivolous litigation, intimidation tactics, abuse of power, and dual representation without informed consent are also unethical.

Such conduct undermines fairness, honesty, and professionalism within the legal realm, potentially causing harm to clients, legal proceedings, and the reputation of the legal profession as a whole.

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.

Common unethical practices among attorneys

While the majority of lawyers uphold high ethical standards, there have been instances of unethical behavior within the legal profession.

Some common unethical lawyer practices include:

  1. Conflict of interest violations: Representing clients with conflicting interests without proper disclosure and informed consent can compromise a lawyer’s loyalty to their clients.
  2. Lack of competence: Providing legal services without the necessary skills, knowledge, or experience can harm clients and result in inadequate representation.
  3. Misappropriation of funds: Mishandling client funds or using funds intended for a specific purpose for personal use is a serious breach of trust.
  4. False statements or misrepresentations: Lying or providing false information to clients, courts, opposing parties, or other parties involved in a legal matter is unethical.
  5. Billing fraud: Charging clients for work that was not performed, inflating hours worked, or misrepresenting the nature of the work can constitute billing fraud.
  6. Excessive fees: Charging clients unreasonable or excessive fees that do not correspond to the value of the services provided is unethical.
  7. Neglecting client matters: Failing to communicate with clients, missing important deadlines, or not diligently pursuing a client’s legal matter can harm the client’s interests.
  8. Unauthorized practice of law: Providing legal services in jurisdictions where the lawyer is not licensed or authorized to practice is unethical.
  9. Improper use of confidential information: Sharing or using confidential client information for personal gain or to harm a client’s interests is a breach of ethical obligations.
  10. Inadequate communication: Failing to keep clients informed about the progress of their cases or not providing regular updates can be considered neglectful.
  11. Engaging in frivolous litigation: Bringing baseless or meritless claims to court as a tactic to harass or intimidate opponents is unethical.
  12. Tampering with evidence: Altering, destroying, or hiding evidence relevant to a case is not only unethical but may also be illegal.
  13. Harassment or intimidation: Engaging in bullying, threats, or intimidation tactics toward clients, opposing parties, witnesses, or other attorneys is unethical.
  14. Abuse of power: Abusing a position of authority, such as using influence to gain favorable treatment or using connections to bypass normal legal processes, is unethical.
  15. Dual representation without informed consent: Representing multiple clients with potentially conflicting interests without obtaining the informed consent of all parties involved can lead to ethical violations.

It’s important to remember that these unethical practices are not representative of the legal profession as a whole, and the vast majority of lawyers are committed to upholding ethical standards and providing effective and honest representation to their clients.

Legal regulatory bodies, such as bar associations, have mechanisms in place to address unethical behavior and maintain the integrity of the profession, so it’s important to be able to recognize unethical behavior among attorneys that you with for or with.

Know your limits and dealing with unethical behavior

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.


While instances of unethical attorney behavior are rare, they do exist, as they do in any profession, and it’s crucial for those who may be impacted by the practices of unethical attorneys to know where they stand and how to deal with these situations if they arise.

Attorneys under whom you work might even direct you to participate in actions that compromise your ethical integrity, creating a disconcerting situation, particularly for paralegals.

If faced with such circumstances, it is crucial to navigate them wisely and being able to recognize unethical behavior is vital, as it encompasses actions that breach established professional standards, potentially harming both the legal system, client trust, and potentially resulting in severe consequences including disbarment.

By understanding common unethical practices and being aware of your ethical limits, you can effectively deal with these professional challenges.

Holding onto evidence of misconduct and knowing when to walk away from an environment that condones unethical behavior safeguards your professional reputation and integrity.

Ultimately, being vigilant, informed, and prepared empowers you to uphold the highest ethical standards in the legal field and protect yourself from unethical attorney behavior.

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