Cost-cutting attorneys beware: Taking advantage of law students' free access to Westlaw is unethical and could be a potential felony.
That's the conclusion of a recent Utah State Bar ethics opinion, as reported by the Legal Skills Prof Blog. Lawyers who encourage or require law students to use their free Westlaw accounts for firm work could face discipline and even criminal charges, the Bar committee found.
"Numerous students" have complained about this widespread practice, the Utah Bar's opinion notes, adding it really amounts to theft of services. Here's why.
Law students are usually given free accounts to online research services like Westlaw upon entering law school. Students must also sign contracts and agree to use those services only for educational or non-profit purposes.
So when students seek employment with private law firms, they can't be forced to use their free law student Westlaw accounts for firm work, the Utah Bar opinion states. Rather, the firms are supposed to pay for Westlaw access for each student they employ -- which can add up to hundreds of dollars per month, according to the Legal Skills Prof Blog.
Misuse of a law student's Westlaw account can lead to criminal charges for theft of services, the opinion says. Depending on the amount of services used, it could amount to a felony.
The Utah ethics opinion emphasizes that practicing lawyers cannot expect law students to breach their contractual obligations to Westlaw. "Indeed, the lawyer's obligation is to make certain that the law clerk not violate any of the contractual duties and responsibilities," the opinion states.
"Encouraging or even tolerating" the violation is dishonest conduct for an attorney and violates an ethical rule, the opinion states. It also violates the "duty of supervision" for lawyers who hire law students.
Lawyers who disagree with the Utah Bar's opinion may want to hit up Westlaw to try to find a legal loophole -- just make sure you're not using a law student's free Westlaw account to do it.
- Hiring Law Students for Free Online Research Is Widespread and Unethical, Opinion Says (ABA Journal)
- Opinion No. 11-03 (Ethics Advisory Opinions) (Utah State Bar)
- UVA Law Student Broke Into Registrar to Steal Transcript Paper (FindLaw's Greedy Associates)
- Urgent Legal Research? Use WestlawNext on Your Smartphone (FindLaw's Technologist)