Paralegals are an integral member of the legal services delivery team. They fill a role in law firms of all size and practice area and also work in the public sector and in corporate settings. They are well educated and able to work in sophisticated areas of the law practice. The involvement of paralegals in providing legal services continues to develop as members of the legal profession seek avenues to increase access to legal services and to control legal costs. It is crucial that paralegals have a clear understanding of the ethical rules that govern their work so that they provide competent services with integrity and within ethical parameters.
The American Bar Association has developed model guidelines for the utilization of paralegals. The guidelines set out that, although a lawyer is responsible for all of the professional actions of a paralegal performing services at the lawyer’s direction, the paralegal’s conduct must be consistent with the lawyer’s obligations under the rules of professional conduct of the jurisdiction in which the lawyer practices. Further, a lawyer may not delegate to a paralegal the responsibility for establishing an attorney-client relationship or fees to be charged for legal services or the responsibility for a legal opinion rendered to a client. Attorneys may not enter into agreements with a paralegal to split legal fees. Paralegals must also refrain from the unauthorized practice of law. They are bound by the same rules governing client confidentiality and conflicts of interest that govern attorneys.
California Business Code section 6450(d) states that every two years a paralegal “shall be required to certify completion of four hours of mandatory continuing legal education in legal ethics…” It is the paralegal’s responsibility to maintain records proving that the educational requirements have been met.
The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) have developed codes of ethics and professional conduct as well. The California Alliance of Paralegal Associations (CAPA) has also written ethics guidelines. All of the ethics codes for paralegals echo those promulgated by the American Bar Association and the State Bar of California.
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