Paralegals perform legal work for attorneys, law firms and legal departments of businesses and organizations. Two main professional organizations govern paralegal behavior via ethical guidelines for organization members: the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). Both have written codes of ethical guidelines and obligations for paralegals that are substantially the same and do not conflict.
General Professional Conduct
According to NFPA’s website, it adopted its code of ethics in 1993 to “delineate the principles for ethics and conduct to which every paralegal should aspire.” It specifies general guidelines to follow to ensure professional conduct, including avoiding ex parte communications and communications directly with parties represented by attorneys, behaving in accordance with decorum and dignity and avoiding impropriety or the appearance of the same. It also mandates paralegals keep accurate, honest and complete time and billing records. NALA members agree to follow the canons of its ethics code to ensure paralegals “adhere strictly to the accepted standards of legal ethics and to the general principles of proper conduct.” Canon 10 also obligates paralegals to follow bar associations’ “codes of professional responsibility and rules of professional conduct."
NFPA’s code of ethics states paralegals must obtain and maintain adequate paralegal competency through education and work experience, including completing at least 12 hours of continuing legal education (CLE) every two years. Canon 6 of NALA’s code similarly encourages paralegals to achieve integrity and competency through training and education, including CLE.
NFPA doesn’t require paralegals to perform public service, but it does encourage paralegals to be sensitive to and serve the public interest. It also encourages paralegals to try to perform at least 24 hours of pro bono, or free, legal work for the public each year.
NFPA’s and NALA’s disclosure provisions in their ethics codes revolve around confidentiality, conflicts of interest and status. Both codes require paralegals to protect and maintain client confidentiality and prohibit paralegals from breaching the attorney-client privilege doctrine. They state that paralegals must avoid conflicts of interest, maintain a system of tracking prior clients to monitor potential conflicts of interest and must disclose any actual or potential conflicts of interest to their supervising attorneys. Finally, paralegals must disclose they are paralegals and are not attorneys.
Unauthorized Practice of Law
Both NFPA’s and NALA’s ethics codes prohibit paralegals from practicing law or giving legal opinions. Canon 3 of NALA’s code clarifies the prohibition of the unauthorized practice of law by stating paralegals cannot accept clients, determine fees or represent a client in court or before any other agency unless statute or the agency's rules allow it.
NALA’s ethics code prevents paralegals from performing any tasks only attorneys can perform as well as any tasks attorneys cannot perform. It further states a paralegal’s work must be supervised by an attorney and that attorney must be held ultimately responsible for the legal work and maintain her relationship with the client.
NALA’s code of ethics does not contain a specific enforcement provision. To enforce its code, NFPA has a nine-member disciplinary committee that meets as necessary to discuss, investigate and deal with violations. It allows this committee to place sanctions including a reprimand letter, counseling or ethics course attendance, probation, a fine or referral of criminal activity to the proper authorities for enforcement.