Paralegals Gone Wild

Trust But Verify No Matter How Loyal Support Staff Seem

paralegals gone wild
: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images.

Word that a paralegal for a New York-based personal injury firm allegedly forged some judges’ signatures on some paperwork not just one time, not just a couple times, but dozens of times can leave a lawyer in wonderment: How could that happen? The paralegal in question apparently wasn’t even engaged in any high-tech effort; it is reported that he would literally cut a judge’s signature from one document and paste it to an order, then email the order “approving” transfer of a structured settlement to clients.

Clients relying on these forged orders would then release lump sum payments to a person owed money from an insurance claim settlement and then sell an annuity to a third party. The paralegal, who allegedly ran this operation for more than two years and apparently felt the tease of work pressure, has been arrested.

Tempting as it is to gloat that would never happen at my firm, keep in mind that some fairly major heists by paralegals have also happened elsewhere this year. A long-time paralegal at a Georgia-based firm was accused earlier this year of stealing some $150,000 from client estates. Another pleaded guilty this year to stealing more than half a million dollars in a scheme where he forged client signatures on checks, apparently intended to pay their medical bills, and instead deposited them into his own account. Oops.

Of course, of greater concern than these high-visibility instances are the ones that haven’t actually been uncovered.

Notable, too, about these situations where paralegals behaved badly is the level of trust their supervising attorneys apparently had in these bad actors. Now is a good time to remember that the criminally inclined only sometimes skulk around in dark clothing with weapons in their hands. It’s the seemingly sweet-natured ones who chit-chat, light up a room, and do their jobs well, at least for a while, that can be really disarming.

The lesson to glean from these paralegal misdeeds? Trust, but verify.

As much as every lawyer knows about his duty to supervise paralegals and other nonlawyers, we also know that juggling day-to-day responsibilities is probably harder than we ever thought it would be. It is just so very tempting to hand off a big chunk of repetitive administrative work to a long-time paralegal you know you can count on. Just remember that you aren’t absolved of your obligation for oversight. Also keep in mind that work pressure and opportunity can create disastrous results as we’ve seen by recent recounting of paralegals gone rogue.

In assessing your paralegal and the extent to which you need to manage him, consider these factors:

  • what sort of background check was conducted when the paralegal went through the hiring process?
  • what education does your paralegal have?
  • is that education in legal or paralegal studies or in some other field?
  • what prior experience does your paralegal have?
  • have you provided orientation and training to your paralegal team?
  • did you assess the paralegal’s learning from these activities and, if so, how?
  • for any given procedure, how many sets of eyes review the output being generated?
  • are there levels of approval needed?

Supervising someone, or a team, can be time consuming and frustrating. Effective managers aren’t necessarily born to the task. Monitoring a paralegal’s performance can be aggravating. If you are fortunate enough to hire someone who is competent, professional, and hard-working, you might be very much tempted to ease up on your oversight as you try to focus on the bigger problems at hand: getting more clients and actually practicing law. Still, keep in mind these nagging questions:

  • are you willing to put your own ability to practice law in jeopardy?
  • are you willing to subject yourself to disciplinary proceedings by neglecting your supervisory responsibilities?
  • are you periodically reviewing the paralegal’s work, either overtly or covertly?
  • are there indicators of a need for heightened levels of supervision over the paralegal?
  • are you making reasonable efforts to ensure the nonlawyer’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of a lawyer?
  • are you aware of conduct that would violate rules of professional responsibility but failing to take action to avoid or mitigate the consequences of misconduct? are you taking reasonable remedial action?
  • are you giving signed blank checks to a paralegal for processing?
  • are you confirming that these checks were made out as they were supposed to be?
  • do you know who is verifying that money flowing into and out of the firm is deposited correctly and in the amount indicated? are they so verifying?
  • are you pressuring staff to meet quotas?
  • are you delegating so much to a paralegal that his workload could possibly be considered the unauthorized practice of law by an outsider?
  • have you hired an auditor to review your accounts?

Of course, no one likes to be a micromanager. It’s not pleasant to be looking over someone’s shoulder as they work. Nevertheless, it’s the lawyer’s livelihood that is also at risk if a paralegal starts skimming or cutting corners in some vastly inappropriate way. Don’t let what has happened to some unfortunate legal colleagues happen to you.