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As lawyers we have ethical responsibilities to our clients — and our clients need to be able to trust our staff as well. Though certainly not a new phenomenon, two recent cases serve as a reminder that we need to be mindful of what our support staff are up to.
More filing, less embezzling please.
In the first incident, a Florida paralegal, Richard Hummel, was arrested on drug and theft charges that occurred outside the work place. Though unrelated to his work as a paralegal, it's disturbing to know that your support staff may be engaged in such illegal activities.
In the second incident, the ABA Journal reports that Ana Lissa Reyes, another paralegal, embezzled more than $327,000. Her method? For over five years, she secretly settled claims, and kept the proceeds and retainer payments while working for attorney, Brian Ching. Not only that, she set up her own fake company, Lincoln Litigation, to take on new clients and hide her activities from Ching. In 2011, Ching was disbarred for failing to prevent the embezzlement of nearly $50,000 and for allowing unauthorized settlements in three personal injury cases.
Pretty disturbing that this could all happen right under your nose -- especially if you could get disbarred for the illegal activities of your paralegal. Here are some ways to try to protect yourself and your practice.
Create a Firm Culture Full of Integrity
Let your staff know that you expect yourself, and them, to act with integrity. Leading by example with your own actions and firm culture is key here. Write a company code of conduct and as a part of training, make sure that all employees know that any funny business will not be tolerated.
Stay on Top of Things
It's easy to get bogged down in the work that's piling up on your desk but that's no excuse to bury your head in the sand. It's your responsibility to know what your staff is working on and how they are spending their time. Whether you have your paralegals keep a daily journal, or an end-of-day report, make sure your staff understands that they are accountable to you for the work they do.
Follow Your Instinct
It's amazing. Our gut tells us so much, but we rarely listen. If you see shady, red-light conduct like behaving secretively, or chronic symptoms that would alert you to addictive habits, then don't be afraid to ask your paralegal or other staff members about his or her actions. It's always better to ask than to ignore something in its development stages, and have it blow up in your face.
These instances of paralegal theft are surely in the minority, but it's always good to be prepared and proactive. Hopefully your staff is as honest as you are, but it can't hurt to be sure -- especially when your livelihood can be on the line.