What exactly are paralegal ethics and why do they matter? In this edition of the Paralegal Voice, Carl Morrison talks with Keith Shannon about the heavy weight of ethics in the paralegal profession. Because paralegals hold vulnerable information in trust, competence in ethical rules is crucial to protecting their firm, clients, and even themselves. Carl and Keith begin their discussion with a broad overview of basic ethics definitions and then zero in on best practices for conscientious adherence to ethics rules.
Keith Shannon is a lawyer and paralegal faculty member at Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina.
Special thanks to our sponsors, NALA, ServeNow, CourtFiling.net and Legalinc.
The Paralegal Voice
Is that Ethical?: What You Need to Know about Paralegal Ethics
Carl Morrison: Hello everyone. Welcome to The Paralegal Voice here on Legal Talk Network. I am Carl Morrison, a Certified Paralegal, devoted to law, and your host of The Paralegal Voice.
I am a Certified Paralegal and Paralegal Educator and I am devoted to not only the paralegal profession, but to all legal professionals, from legal support professionals, to paralegals, and to those whom we support, attorneys. I am devoted to helping others enhance their passion and dedication for the paralegal profession through entertaining and engaging interviews.
Before we begin, we would like to thank our sponsor NALA.
NALA is a professional association for paralegals providing continuing education, voluntary certification and professional development programs. NALA has been a sponsor of The Paralegal Voice since our very first show.
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The goal of The Paralegal Voice is to discuss a wide range of topics important to the paralegal industry and share with you leading trends, significant developments and resources you will find helpful in your career and everyday job. My guests will be engaging and informational, with of course, longtime listeners you know, there is always going to be a little bit of fun thrown in.
So today I have a really great guest with me and we are going to talk about one of my most favorite topics. My guest is a lawyer, he is an educator, and of course he is a fan of the show. Today we have Keith Shannon. He is a paralegal faculty member of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Keith, thank you so much for joining me today on today’s show.
Keith Shannon: Great Carl. Thank you for asking me.
Carl Morrison: I am really excited. I know you are excited about this topic. I am excited about it. So I am thrilled to have Keith on our show today, and like I said, Keith is a lawyer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and more importantly, I think I am biased, so Keith is a paralegal faculty member with Central Piedmont, like I said, and before we get into the meat and potatoes of our topic today, which is all about the importance of ethics for paralegals, Keith, why don’t you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself and really how you came to get involved with the paralegal profession being that you are a lawyer?
Keith Shannon: Well firstly, I guess a little about myself. I am from the hills of Eastern Kentucky, that’s where I grew up and went to school and went to law school, and had an undergraduate in journalism and a law degree and then actually got a master’s in journalism from Marshall University as well.
But when I got out of law school I started practicing in Eastern Kentucky and all sorts of — it was a general practice firm, so we did a little bit of everything, and in that little firm, in that little tiny town I got exposed to some tremendous paralegals.
One of my paralegals I used to call Radar O’Reilly. She would just have things done before I even told her to get things done. I mean she was amazing, and other paralegals as well, and so I was exposed to great paralegal work early on.
We ended up moving — after I got married we ended up moving to South Carolina for my wife’s education. She did her medical residency in Charleston, South Carolina. So we moved here, had to take another bar exam, no reciprocity, but I practiced in Charleston for a while, and then we moved here near Charlotte.
And when we moved here I actually found myself as an at-home dad for a while with my two daughters, and as a way to keep my sanity and also get out and see the world occasionally beyond the diaper pail, I started teaching part-time, and that led me to Central Piedmont Community College and there was a full-time slot that opened up 18 years ago; this is my 18th year teaching, and I took it and just fell in love with teaching and fell in love with specifically the education of paralegals.
Since then I have gotten to see — since I have been there so long I have gotten to see some of my students really get into the industry and do a great job, and I have been able to talk to the attorneys that they have been able to help. And it’s just been really rewarding and it’s just an adventure, and I really believe in the paralegal profession and what they can do for the public and for the legal profession.
Carl Morrison: You are a man after my own heart, because that just — it makes me feel wonderful to know that. And you are not an anomaly by any means, there are attorneys out there that truly do recognize and see the benefit of properly utilizing a paralegal. So, thank you for giving back to, not only the legal industry, but to paralegals by helping educate, which is a huge thing. I am a huge proponent of education and so to know that you are out there helping paralegals as well, it means the world to me, so thank you.
So let’s start off the show, like I said, we are talking about ethics. So we are going to talk first — I have got kind of a two-part question for you. So let’s start off with the core basics, what I am calling the core basics, at the 30,000 foot view, what are ethics in the broadest sense, how would you define ethics in general?
Keith Shannon: Wow, that’s not a small question. There are entire college courses and folks who had devoted their lives to answering that. But I guess to kind of, if you look at a textbook definition, and this is sort of cheating because I teach a course in ethics and believe it or not that is the very first thing that we cover in ethics, that’s the first thing in my outline, what’s the definition of ethics, so I am ready for this one.
That’s basically the moral principles that govern someone’s life and existence. That’s the set of rules that don’t change, that you base your behavior on whenever you do anything, those unchanging set of rules. And I know that we could talk five years about what the study of ethics is, but in a nutshell, I think that’s probably what it is.
Carl Morrison: Right. And as a fellow educator, you kind of have to start there to help students understand the core basics of what the definition of ethics means. So let’s apply that definition then to why do ethics really matter in the legal industry? How can ethical decisions affect what I say is a paralegals practice?
Keith Shannon: Well, it’s funny, because again that’s a question that comes up and it’s amazing how consistent my students answer that question — how consistently they answer the question. And usually they point out the reason that ethics matter is really from a client’s perspective. When a client comes to an attorney and a paralegal, that client may be in the most vulnerable position that they will ever be in, they are extremely vulnerable. They are possibly going to trust that attorney with confidential information that nobody else on the planet knows, that they can’t trust anybody else with and they are trusting their lives, sometimes their future, sometimes their money, and all this confidential information to this one person.
And a breach of ethics, which includes a breach of confidentiality, includes a breach of competence; you have got to be competent, not only from a malpractice standpoint, but actually from an ethical standpoint. A slip-up in ethics or a difference in the ethical perspective from one attorney to the other as opposed to a uniform ethical perspective can wreak havoc with a client’s life, the client’s money, or those confidences or a client’s future, the client’s freedom if it’s a criminal case.
So it’s a pretty heavy responsibility and it’s all tied up with those Ethics Rules, and so the attorneys and the paralegals have to be able to follow these ethical principles in order to protect the client and in order to kind of basically give honor to what the client has entrusted to the attorney and the paralegal.
Carl Morrison: You know, you can look at, like the medical profession and of course the medical profession also has a code of ethics, and I always tell students that you have to look at it almost from the aspect of the client is like a patient, the attorney is like a doctor, the paralegal is like the nurse, and it’s important that you understand that the decisions that you make, the ethical decisions can truly affect, like you just said, your client’s livelihood if it’s a business situation, their freedom, their life in a criminal aspect, and so you have to really stop and think about applying those rules. And we will talk here in a second about the rules out there and the code of ethics that apply to us, but you have to think about those decisions that you make and that it can truly affect someone in a very negative way, that can really affect them the rest of their life.
Keith Shannon: Yeah, I agree. I think you are absolutely right. This is one of those I think do not try this at home sort of things. You really need to approach being a paralegal as a serious business and approach the ethics of being a paralegal as serious business.
Carl Morrison: I tell students also and you probably tell your students the same that there are many shades of gray when it comes to the ethics. While we have rules and guidelines to help us understand where those guideposts are located, there are many different shades of gray and bumping up against that guidepost and teetering on that crossing over, those ethical situations again can truly affect your client.
Keith Shannon: I have shown you a video that I show my students which I think sort of bears on what you just said, which is the reason we talk about ethics and teach students about ethics, it’s so that they will know when they get near that barrier, where they are about to cross the line.
I told you about this video that I use where I show my dog and we are walking past an invisible fence and I explained that teaching students about paralegal ethics is alike that invisible fence, in the sense that when they get near it, they will get a signal that says hey, you might be getting too close, you may cross over the line and violate the Ethics Rules. And the reason it’s important to know those rules is so that you will know when you are getting close to the line. You don’t want to wait until you have crossed the line to realize that you are in trouble. So I think being familiar with this stuff is really important.
Carl Morrison: Exactly right. I tell students I am going to beat these ethical rules into your head, which is probably not the right thing to say to a student, but to stress the importance.
Keith Shannon: That’s probably not real good for them.
Carl Morrison: It’s all about the important — having them understand the importance of ethics and having them understand that they are truly responsible as well as their attorney when it comes to understanding and knowing those ethical rules and talking about the responsibility.
Of course many of us, even new paralegals coming out or even in programs, they learn about the ABA and the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility. And so the ABA defined professional responsibility as the area of legal practice that encompasses the duties of attorneys to act in a professional manner, obey the law, avoid conflicts of interest and put the interests of clients ahead of their own interests.
So first, again, I am going to kind of step back and let’s look at this from the 30,000 foot view, what is professional responsibility in that broadest sense, how would you define it?
Keith Shannon: Well, I think it’s — and it’s all bound up really in that definition really. It really is putting yourself in the client’s position. It’s being responsible for not just the ethical rules — well, it’s the ethical rules, but for attorneys and paralegals, those ethical rules actually go beyond just plain old ethics. They go beyond doing the right thing. And they talk about really specific stuff, about how to advertise your law firm, about whether or not you can solicit clients, about how you handle a trust account, how often do you have to reconcile the checkbook, I mean there are some really concrete things that are embedded in those rules as well.
And I think — so if you look at the whole thing, not just the ethics, but also the concrete things that deal with how you run your office and how people are supposed to do the things that they are supposed to do, I think that means professional responsibility. That means respect for the clients, respect for the system, respect for your attorney and for the place that employs you. So it’s a really broad idea I think.
Carl Morrison: And you think that paralegals should have that same level of responsibility, right, that lawyers are supposed to follow?
Keith Shannon: Yes. As a matter of fact, last night in class I was talking to the class about — I said something about, just because there is an ABA Rule that says the attorney is charged with the responsibility of supervising you, don’t think that that somehow lets you off the hook. I said something to the effect of, don’t forget if there is a lawsuit for malpractice and you are the person that committed the malpractice, the attorney is going to get named in the lawsuit, but there is nothing that prevents you from getting named as a defendant as well.
And one of the students went what? Maybe my ethics class — because this was not my ethics class I did this in and I think the student had had my ethics class and I thought, hmm, maybe I should go back and cover that again in ethics, but it was news to this student and it shouldn’t be really. The paralegal is just as responsible as the attorney to behave in a professional manner and to obey those Ethics Rules.
Carl Morrison: So you mentioned professional manner, what does it mean to the paralegal to act in a professional manner if we break down the ABA’s definition, what does it mean to a paralegal, act in a professional manner?
Keith Shannon: Well, I think — this is one of those questions where I think it’s easier to answer when you start talking about what an unprofessional manner is. Again, when a client comes in, they are paying money, in addition — again, they are being very vulnerable and needing your help, they want to be treated with respect. They don’t want to come in and walk into an environment where they can hear like paralegals or support staff talking about other cases, talking about other clients, where they come in and there may be a file just laying on a desk that anybody could walk up and look at, in terms of confidentiality.
One of my pet peeves, and I know a lot of law firms do this, is having the receptionist or having the person who is answering the telephone be the receptionist, so that every call that comes through the office comes through the waiting room. So everybody who is sitting in the waiting room knows who has called the office because the receptionist is forwarding the calls and telling who the person on the phone is. Sometimes telling the attorney what the nature of the call is right there in front of everybody in the waiting room.
So I think it’s avoiding things like that, avoiding just a general unprofessional environment. Making sure that the client feels as though they are being taken care of, and that doesn’t mean being a stuffed shirt, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a casual Friday or be relaxed in your job or be friendly and stuff like that, but it means paying attention to those details that make sure that the client trusts your office to be respectful to them and to what they are bringing to the attorney.
Carl Morrison: And that’s a great point. You hit the nail on the head is that, it’s more than how you dress, it’s more than showing up to work on time; while those are also very important attributes to ensure that you are professional, there are other things, and especially with what we are talking about when it comes to ethics, that everything that you just mentioned, that also plays into how you act in a truly professional manner. It’s ensuring, going back to putting the interest of the client ahead of your own interest, that’s it, that’s how you act in a professional manner.
So speaking of putting the interests of a client ahead of their own interests, so how can a paralegal put the interests of their client, their attorney’s client, but it’s their client as well because they are helping serve the client ahead of their own interests, really isn’t that something more for an attorney and not a paralegal, I mean don’t you think?
Keith Shannon: And I know you are playing devil’s advocate there.
Carl Morrison: I am.
Keith Shannon: Because you know that that’s not true. It’s definitely for the paralegal. And you are a paralegal, so you know that in a lot of practices the paralegal has more client contact than the attorney does, especially in say plaintiffs’ personal injury practice, where the client might be turning over medical bills constantly or constantly calling in or that sort of thing. So the way the paralegal behaves is going to reflect on the firm and is going to greatly affect the representation anyway.
And the point is that sometimes paralegals have to do things that really they don’t like to do. You might have to call a client who really isn’t very pleasant, but you just want to keep in contact with that client and let them know how their case is doing so you suck it up and make the phone call.
Or another example might be an elder law practice, where I know that everybody complains about young people not wanting to use the phone, they want to use email, and I don’t know if that’s true or not, or actually they want to text, but if you are in an elder law practice chances are your clients are going to want to prefer phone calls instead of texts or emails and maybe it’s no fun for you to make phone calls, but if you are putting the client’s interests above your own, you just go ahead and communicate with that client by phone, because that’s what they need, even though you don’t like to do it, and even though you might think it’s sort of inefficient and old-fashioned. I think that’s an example of putting the client’s interests before your own.
Carl Morrison: And I do agree with you 110%. I was playing devil’s advocate with you there. But I have two very dear friends that work in family law and they truly do this statement. They do put the interest of the client ahead of their own interests. They have to make those difficult calls. They have to — and they deal with divorce actions and there are days when they have certain clients that are calling them 27 times a day and it wears on them emotionally, but you suck it up, you be a professional, take their call, handle them, because you have to understand and have empathy for your client that they are going through a hard time, they are going through a grieving process, they are going through, whatever the case may be, and they come first, ahead of your own.
Keith Shannon: Absolutely. I think a side note, anybody who can do family law anyway deserves some sort of star in heaven, I think. From my point of view, that’s a tough gig because of the emotional strain.
Carl Morrison: Well, I know that they listen to the show, so I know they are smiling as they are listening that you are sending prayers up to heaven that they get a gold star, because I agree with you 110%, I don’t know how they do it. I have done civil litigation insurance defense for a million years and I could never do family law, so they truly have the patience of Job and a strong backbone.
Well, Keith, we could talk about this all day long, so we are going to give our listeners a quick break, commercial break. So listeners, don’t turn that dial, stay tuned and we will be right back.
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Carl Morrison: Welcome back to The Paralegal Voice. I am Carl Morrison. My guest today is Keith Shannon and we are discussing ethics and paralegals and the importance of ethics. And before we took a break we were talking about acting in a professional manner and putting those interests of the clients before our own.
But Keith, are there guidelines or rules out there that truly apply directly to paralegals? We are going to talk about those rules that a paralegal must follow. So let’s first talk about what I call the big rules, and those are the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility that the ABA of course produced a million years ago. Please do not test me on when they did it. I test my students, but I never can remember dates. Attorneys have to follow these rules and by default we as paralegals, really we have got to follow them as well.
So I am going to do something really hard Keith. I am going to say, if you were only able to pick three Model Rules, what would you say are the top three rules that a paralegal must follow, not should, but must follow, if you can only have three rules, what would they be? What do you think are the most important three and that’s a hard question?
Keith Shannon: Yeah. Well, I think I already mentioned maybe two of them I think, but the first one, and again, this is kind of cheating because I just happened to be talking about this rule last night in class, but the very first rule, 1.1, Competence. I think that’s a really important rule and people sort of skip over it because they think well, competence has to do with malpractice. They don’t realize that competence really is an ethical rule as well, that you shouldn’t be taking something on that you are incompetent or that you are not competent to handle.
And I have had attorney friends who have gotten into trouble. They look at something and say well, oh, I think I can handle a class action, or I think I can do a little bit of real estate or a little bit of bankruptcy, those very specialized areas where you are crazy to try to do a little bit of them, because you get in trouble.
And I think the same thing applies to a paralegal, if you are trying to do something for an attorney and you feel as though you are not competent, then you are ethically bound to try to get some help or to tell the attorney that you can’t do it. And I know usually for a paralegal it might just be someone who is starting out and who is in a new position and they are a little shy about asking for help, but I think it’s bigger than just an office procedures thing. I think it’s an ethical issue. I think paralegals need to be competent to do the stuff that they are supposed to do.
One of the other rules is the Confidentiality Rule, and I have talked about that as well, and I have seen time and time again where paralegals have not kept confidences. They have walked through the halls of a law firm and maybe shouted something to one another about a case or a client and other people who were in the office could hear them, or they talk when they are in the elevator.
I told you, I was from a small town in Eastern Kentucky. We couldn’t even go out to eat and talk about anything within our office, because the waitress or waiter might be related to somebody that we would be talking about, some case that we would be talking about. It was a small town, if they weren’t related, they knew them.
So I think that is something that paralegals need to take really seriously, and that extends to the technology as well, making sure that the technological encryption is there and that they are protecting things.
And then I guess the other one would be the Unauthorized Practice of Law. I think that hits paralegals pretty hard as well.
Carl Morrison: I have students that — because that’s also one of the major things that I hit home, coupled that and what you were just talking about in confidentiality, but I always tell students that, especially in the intro class that you are going to — as you go through this program and when you graduate and when you get out there and are working as a paralegal, you are going to have friends and family that are going to come up and say, I have this situation and what do you think I should do?
Well, I always still students, I have family that will ask me and I will go, I can’t answer that. I am forbidden from giving legal advice. Well, I am not asking for legal advice, I am just asking for what you think I should do.
Well, if it is me taking the facts, applying legal knowledge and coming up with an opinion or direction, then that’s legal advice and I am forbidden and I can’t do it. I love you, you are my sister, you are my brother, you are my best friend, but I can’t do it, I am forbidden from doing that.
And it’s kind of eye-opening for students when you say that to them, because they are thinking well, sure I can just say — even if I know the answer. I know exactly what they need to do. I still can’t do it. I can direct you to an attorney and let them guide you, because the second that you give advice and tell them one thing and they go do it and it’s wrong, who are they going to come back to, who are they going to blame, who is going to get in trouble for it? Me, or my attorney, even though my attorney knows nothing about it, because I am under the supervision of an attorney, I am working for an attorney, and by default they are responsible for me and my actions.
Confidentiality, just like you, I now live in Las Vegas, but before I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Tulsa is about half a million people and I mean it’s not a big town, but it’s not a small town either, but pretty much everybody knows most everybody, and just that same thing I tell students that after work you may be working on a class action lawsuit with another paralegal that works in your office, so the two of you know you can freely talk with each other in the office behind closed doors about a case, but the second you go out for after work drinks and you start talking about a case, you never know who is sitting in the booth right behind you, could be opposing counsel, could be the plaintiff, could be whomever, you can’t do it, you have to watch what you say and where you say it. Even in the office, like you said, walking down the hall and talking about it, because you never know who is right there.
And some students they go, oh, Mr. Morrison, you are just being ridiculous. No, I am trying to protect you. I am trying to protect your hide.
Keith Shannon: Yeah, I mean you never know, I mean you truly never know. It is a small world out there, and even if it weren’t a small world, I mean the other people shouldn’t know whether they have any connection with your clients, nobody should know what’s going on.
I could tell you some stories from my hometown that would just make you faint, with people who went out and spilled the beans on something and didn’t realize they were talking to someone who was a good friend of the opposing party or something like that.
I will tell you — I will correct you on one thing, when you say family and friends ask you for advice, that’s true even up to and including your parents, but the difference is if your parents were like mine, they would ask your advice and then you would give it to them and then they would tell you, you didn’t know what you were talking about and then they would go on.
Now, siblings are different, but your parents, they diapered you, they are just asking you to be polite, they are not going to take your advice anyway.
Carl Morrison: Well, my mother was a lawyer — God rest her soul, she is since deceased, but she was a lawyer, so no, she would not have taken my advice.
Okay, so we talked about the Model Rules and talked a little bit about those particular rules that a paralegal should follow. So let’s talk about from the Paralegal Association aspect. So of course there are a couple of major paralegal associations, NALA and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) that they too have codes of ethics for their paralegal members to follow, but what about those paralegals who are not members of any of the associations? Do you think non-members of an association, just the John Q paralegal public, should still follow those or adhere to those canons?
Keith Shannon: I think they ought to look at those as aspirational. I mean they obviously have not taken any kind of oath saying that they will follow them. In North Carolina we do have certification, voluntary certification so to be a certified North Carolina paralegal you have to have a particular level of education and pass an exam and then follow their Ethics Rules, including some CLE.
But for paralegals who aren’t members of those, I think they should still familiarize themselves with those codes of ethics, because that’s an attempt to establish the standard in the industry. And if they don’t abide by that standard, there are people lined up ready to take their job who do abide by those standards. So it’s going to be not just in the client’s best interest, but it’s going to be in their best interest to look at those things.
I think people should join NALA or NFPA or whatever association, even the local paralegal association just so that they will have some sort of structure like that, but they ought to look at those Ethics Rules and try to figure out, why are these things in place and how do they apply to be.
Carl Morrison: One of my assignments in my intro class is to give paralegal students exposure to the different codes of ethics and I give them a scenario, it’s a paragraph, two paragraphs long of a factual type scenario and it’s riddled with ethical violations and they have to go through and identify those violations, but they also have to go look at the codes, the canons for these associations and identify what canons, what codes were violated and why and how would you do it, how would you not do it. And it’s always a great exercise, just because these students aren’t — they don’t belong to an association, but just like you, I am wanting them to be aspirational, to aspire to be the standard when it comes to being an ethical paralegal.
And I think it’s important, even if you don’t belong to an association, but like you, I say join, join an association, for multitude of reasons, but one of which is your peers and to ensure that you are meeting the standards when it comes to the ethics and the codes and the canons.
So let’s talk about my favorite is the Unauthorized Practice of Law or what most people, those newbies that are listening, it’s called UPL. So of course the Model Rules and laws in states that say that a non-lawyer may not practice law, but I am going to ask you Keith, do you think the practice of law should be limited to lawyers? Do you think that paralegals should be regulated, like either licensing or certification, mandatory certification, etc., what do you think, I would like to hear your opinion?
Keith Shannon: And that’s kind of a tough one, because I am sure you are aware that there is a movement now, like with Washington State, they got — their limited license legal technicians, I think, and is it Utah that has — they just started some sort of licensing as well, and so they are letting paralegals who have these designations do a limited amount of work.
I think the one in Washington State is just limited to domestic, although they are family law stuff and they are able to help clients fill out forms and kind of navigate the system, and I think they are trying to expand that maybe. And I think Utah’s is a little more expansive. I think there are three areas; I can’t remember what they are now.
So I guess it boils down to what you think the practice of law is and how far that extends, because I am caught in the middle, I am a lawyer who is also teaching paralegal. So the lawyer side of me says no, no, no, wait, that’s what we do, but then I am teaching paralegals who I see they could do a certain amount of that sort of stuff that the limited licensed technicians could do. So it’s tough.
I think that the major area of the practice of law needs to be limited to lawyers. I mean in terms of full-blown representation of somebody and giving legal advice, taking those facts and applying legal principles to them, I think that still should be reserved for lawyers. But there are other things that maybe paralegals could expand on it and be able to do, and the only way you could do that would be by the licensing and certification.
In North Carolina, anybody can call themselves a paralegal or a legal assistant, but you can’t call yourself a North Carolina certified paralegal or legal assistant. Well, I don’t think there is North Carolina certified paralegal. And I like the idea of the certification program because it gives everybody who has one of those paralegals of the knowledge that that person has passed a certain basic training, they have passed the test, they have had a certain amount of education, and I like that.
But I don’t know that North Carolina will ever kind of try to license or certify every paralegal, because we all know people who have not gone through that certification process who have been paralegals for 30 years and who are extremely competent and it wouldn’t be fair to them to make them go through some sort of educational hoop just to call themselves what they have been calling themselves for the past 30 years.
Carl Morrison: I agree with you 100%. Again, I liken it to doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, that a doctor still is the one that’s gone through the — all the additional training and education to truly treat the entire patient, but the nurse practitioner has additional knowledge that can help diagnose under or in concert with a physician, but they are not taking the place of a lawyer, they are limited on what they can and cannot do. And I think that’s with you I agree, that there are ways that paralegals can assist in certification type of, I hate to use the term regulation, but having that certification does set the individual apart that they have done the extra so that they can do a little more in the way of the substantive work.
Okay, so I am going to ask you another tough question.
Keith Shannon: Okay.
Carl Morrison: And then I will be nice. No, I am kidding. What should a paralegal do, this is questions I get all the time from students and I am sure you do too, so what should a paralegal do if an attorney asks them to do something unethical? They have the core knowledge of ethics and the Model Rules and an attorney asks them to do something unethical, what would you recommend a paralegal do? How should they respond?
Keith Shannon: Well, you know, that’s kind of the $50,000 question, and it’s the toughest one to answer. Well, in some ways it’s the toughest, but in some ways it’s the easiest as well. If it’s something that is slam dunk unethical, then I think the paralegal needs to refuse to do it. If it’s clearly unethical, then the paralegal needs to just say no, I am not going to do it.
Now, that’s easy for me to say, because I am not the paralegal, I am not paying rent from that paralegal’s salary, I am not feeding my kids from that, kind of in a theoretical sense that’s easy to say.
There might be a way to back into it. I mean if an attorney asks you to do something unethical, it’s possible that he or she doesn’t know it’s unethical. And so if the paralegal feels comfortable doing this, say well, that rings a bell. This is the invisible fence time, the collar is starting to beep and you say, you know that — can we look at the Ethics Rules, because I think that might not be correct. I think we may have to do something else. And that’s probably the easiest way to kind of do it other than saying no, you are an unethical person and I am not going to do it.
It’s possible that if it’s not a clear line or something that the attorney just hasn’t given a lot of thought, sit down with the attorney and tell them why you think it’s unethical and then go to the Rule Books. I mean there is a lot of information out there, a lot of ethics opinions that address a lot of specific situations and you can find those. Even if the rules aren’t clear, there are a lot of those opinions that get put out there.
I think that’s the way to handle it, otherwise, I hate to say, leave your job, that’s pretty severe, but I don’t think under any circumstances should you do anything that is clearly unethical. What do you think?
Carl Morrison: Oh, I got a guest turning the question back on me.
Keith Shannon: Yes.
Carl Morrison: I will be honest, I agree with you, and you made a point that I am going to say, and not disparaging attorneys, but sometimes attorneys don’t fully think through. And I tell students that that’s our role is to help know the rules, because sometimes the attorneys aren’t thinking the ethical aspect and nothing against, but your mind is in helping the client or helping figure out and analyze the situation and you may not be thinking the applicable ethical potential violation or rule that may affect, and so it’s up to us as the paralegal to go hey, timeout, wait, I think we are skating close to rule whatever. Do you mind if I pull this up and can we sit down with it? Nine times out of ten the attorney is going to go, oh, you know, I never thought about that.
I have done it in the past, fully have said, are you sure that’s ethical, because it seems a little shady to me, should we look at the rules, and had a good enough working relationship with the attorney that he or she was like, oh, sure, yeah, let’s look at those. I didn’t even think about that, maybe you are right. I know we can do X, but maybe we can’t do Y, and we sit down and look at the commentary on the rules and figure it out. It’s fine.
It goes back to do you know your attorney, how great of a relationship do you have. Don’t always go off, and I tell students this, just don’t always go, oh my gosh, you are doing that wrong and I am going to report you, that’s the wrong response to have, stop and think about, how should I handle this.
And if you have got — if you are working for a large law firm and you have got partners, there is a whole Ethics Committee, that their whole role is to ensure that all the attorneys are following the ethical rules, and if you are not comfortable talking to your own attorney, you may have another support to go to within your firm to talk to a senior partner, managing partner, whatever to discuss the situation and just ensure that everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing, because to be honest, you are protecting your attorney’s license. You don’t want them to lose their license, because by default you are losing that.
So Keith, we are running out of time here, so I have got a fun final question for you. You have been giving your own late night talk show, so who would you invite as your first guest and why, and it can be living or deceased, we pretend that they have come back from the dead, but who would you invite as your first guest and why?
Keith Shannon: Wow, I have been listening to these old Johnny Carson things on SiriusXM, they have been replaying the audio from Johnny Carson, that’s kind of amazing. But this is going to sound like such a self-serving and wimpy kind of answer, and maybe it’s just because I am a proud dad or whatever, but honestly, I think two of the most interesting people I know right now are my daughters.
They are funny and one is 28 and one is 22 and the older one is in the film business and the younger one just got a theater degree and now she is getting an MBA and they are smart and funny. And I have told you, I do a podcast with the younger one and I — she is so busy that sometimes she says well, dad, just go ahead and do the episode without me, and I have told her, I said then the episode just stinks. If it’s just me, it stinks. You make me — you bring out the best in me, because you are funny and you are smart and clever and both of them.
So I know that’s a wimpy answer and probably not the kind that is what you were looking for, but honestly, just being honest, I am happiest and having the most fun and it brings out the best in me when I am with both of them.
Carl Morrison: Well Keith, you are an amazing father obviously and I am sure that your girls are very proud of you. So that actually warms my heart and I just love that. So I don’t think that’s a wimpy answer at all.
Keith Shannon: Well, thanks.
Carl Morrison: Keith, thank you so much for being a guest on today’s show. If any of the listeners wanted to get in touch with you, how would they do that?
Keith Shannon: Well, my email at Central Piedmont Community College is [email protected]. So [email protected].
I am also on Twitter, I really like Twitter for some reason. I learn a lot. I tell my students to get on there and don’t do the silly junk, but you can learn a lot about legal technology, a lot about legal writing and paralegals just by putting the right hashtags in on Twitter. So I am there. I am @KeithShannon8, so there are seven others. I have a feeling that one of those seven is probably still me. I had an old account years ago and I have forgotten the password, but I am @KeithShannon8, and so that’s probably the best way you can find me.
I have got a contact page at CPCC as well that has address and stuff like that, but I am always happy to talk to people and I love talking about this stuff and I am happy to meet listeners and other people who are interested in the paralegal world.
Carl Morrison: Well, Keith, thank you so much. I greatly appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to talk about this important topic and we can probably have a ten-part series on ethics. So thank you Keith so much, greatly appreciate it.
Keith Shannon: Thank you.
Carl Morrison: That is all the time we have for today’s podcast, so be sure and tune into next month’s episode and truly stay tuned for paralegal news and announcements. We will be right back.
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Carl Morrison: Welcome back, it’s Halloween time, it’s October and we typically at this point come to the segment that’s called The Listener’s Voice. I wanted to kind of change it up a little bit, throw you guys off a little bit. Of course I always — I am going to have my listeners’ voice, always send your questions and comments to me at [email protected], keep the questions coming, I love it, love it, love it, love it.
But I wanted to just briefly tell you guys, recently I took a trip with a very dear paralegal friend of mine to London and we even came up with our own hashtag, it was #Parabrits, and of course British paralegals, of course, and we did all the regular London touristy things that you do when you go.
But we are both law nerds, we both love the law, and so we went, not your traditional tourist location to go to, but we went to The Royal Courts of Justice, which is Great Britain’s highest Court. You can kind of call it their Supreme Court.
Funny thing is, ironic, when we were there literally two years prior, I had been at the United States Supreme Court, so almost exactly at the same day, I am at two years later at another different country’s Supreme Court, which was really interesting. But we got there and the court, they weren’t having any hearings, so we weren’t able to actually go in and listen to oral arguments in any actions, because it was a special day that the courts go to — or the justices go to the Westminster Abbey and they do this big pomp and circumstance deal.
Anyway, so we got to the courthouse and just like any other regular courthouse, other than it was absolutely gorgeous, it had a security desk and told them that we were paralegals from the United States and were there on holiday and we just wanted to kind of walk around if we could and they said absolutely. In fact, they had a little map to walk around and tour different things and see different paintings and sculptures and different things.
And one of the things we saw, which was just absolutely fascinating was, there is a particular statue in the main lobby area of The Royal Courts of Justice, and it’s a statue of a particular Justice, Blackstone, and for you law nerds out there, Blackstone many, many moons ago wrote commentary, legal commentary on different laws and things. And the United States court system relies and relied a lot on Blackstone’s commentary for various legal issues.
And there is this statue, beautiful marble statue and there is this picture, photograph taken in the 30s that is showing the installation of this particular statue, and it was the American Bar Association actually had gifted this particular statue to Great Britain in honor of Blackstone. And it was just kind of fascinating to see the connection of our legal system and how much a particular jurist in UK meant to us. So it was really neat to see that.
They also had, and I of course had to pick up this brochure about the King’s College in London is actually doing in January a free online course about how much do you know about UK judges, and it’s developed in collaboration with this particular King’s College in London and the judiciary of England and Wales about the structure of the legal system, how judges reach decisions and approach sentencing, things of that nature, and you can go on and register for it for free. So me being the big nerd, what do you think I did, I went online immediately and registered to do it.
So stay tuned. I am going to talk more about it. I will let you guys know once I get started into it and maybe I might have a little segment about the British Judiciary, so stay tuned, I might have a little segment on that after the first of the year.
So that’s all the time we have today for The Paralegal Voice. Again, you have any questions about today’s show, of course email them to me at [email protected], and of course stay tuned for more information in upcoming podcasts for exciting paralegal trends, news and engaging and fun interviews from leading paralegals and other leading legal professionals.
Thank you for listening to The Paralegal Voice, produced by the broadcast professionals at Legal Talk Network.
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