JEFFERSON CITY – While paralegals certainly have more technology and resources to do their jobs, that additional tech doesn't seem to be why it is more noticeable when attorneys risk being disciplined allegedly for not properly supervising their support staff, experts in the field said in recent interviews.
"I do not think that the problem of attorneys disciplined for failing to properly supervise their paralegals is impacted by changes in technology and the paralegals' role," Greta P. Zeimetz, executive director of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), told the St. Louis Record. "These situations are based on an individual's decision whether or not to properly supervise the work of the paralegal. It is true that the role of a paralegal has grown over the past 20 years, but the responsibility of the attorney to supervise the work has not changed."
The problem isn't more common, just more visible, Zeimetz said.
Greta P. Zeimetz, executive director of the National Association of Legal Assistants | Photo courtesy of Greta P. Zeimetz
"I cannot accurately say that the actions have increased, but rather the notification or the newsworthiness of these stories have certainly spread to much larger audiences due to social media and the internet," she said.
Missouri Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan D. Pratzel pointed out the paucity of attorneys disciplined for not properly supervising a paralegal by referring to the Missouri Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel's 2016 annual Report, compiled for the Missouri Supreme Court's May 2017 and the latest available. Of the 1,723 complaints of attorney misconduct received in 2016, a very tiny percentage involved paralegals.
"The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel has not discerned an increase in attorney discipline based on a failure to supervise support staff, including paralegals," Pratzel told the St. Louis Record. "The OCDC's 2016 annual Report reflects that there were three complaints opened in 2016 based on a possible violation of Rule 4-5.3, the rule that addresses the supervisory responsibility of a lawyer over non-lawyer staff."
Supervising paralegals and support staff remains an attorney's responsibility and there could be trouble if they don’t, but there is plenty of advice out there.
"NALA's Standards on the Utilization of Paralegals states that paralegals, whether employees or independent contractors, perform services for the attorney in the representation of a client," Zeimetz said. "Attorneys should delegate work to paralegals commensurate with their knowledge and experience and provide appropriate instruction and supervision concerning the delegated work, as well as ethical acts of their employment."
While ultimate responsibility lies with the attorney, paralegals have their own role, Zeimetz said.
"A paralegal must use discretion and professional judgment and must not render independent legal judgment in place of an attorney," she said. "I would also recommend that law offices review and use our standards as part of their office training and procedures and that all paralegals learn and know the limitations of their role."
Advice also is readily available for attorneys in Missouri, Pratzel said.
"As stated, Rule 4-5.3 addresses the responsibilities that all lawyers have over their non-lawyer staff," he said. "Compliance with that rule would, to an extent, address any issues with paralegals who engage in conduct that may violate the lawyer's professional duties."