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This long-running column examines ethics in the paralegal profession. Do you have an ethical dilemma or question? E-mail us today.
News Briefs: July/August 2007
Below are some of the latest happenings in the paralegal community. These short snippets represent excerpts of stories that can be found in the July/August 2007 issue of Legal Assistant Today.
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Online Spanish-language paralegal program is first in the U.S.
The University of Miami launched the first Spanish-language paralegal program in the U.S. on April 2. According to David Lecón, J.D., program director, the four-month, online certificate program is conducted entirely in Spanish, opening up the paralegal program to students globally and allowing them to enroll and get started within minutes.
“The program is designed to help students whose first language is Spanish and wish to pursue a career in the paralegal profession, but all legal terminology appears in English as well as Spanish,” Lecón said. “As a foreign lawyer myself, I understood the great potential of offering a course in Spanish to Hispanics in the U.S. as well as lawyers in Latin America.” Lecón, who received his law degree from Tulane Law School in New Orleans, was born and raised in Spain and practiced in Madrid for Baker & McKenzie.
“We currently have 11 instructors [all attorneys], three dedicated exclusively to the online Spanish program, and each attorney is totally bilingual with degrees (including law) from Spanish-speaking countries as well as the U.S.,” Lecón said.
Currently, UM is enrolling students at www.miamiparalegal.com. Because the program is online and doesn’t operate by semesters or quarters, students can start any time.
Paralegal’s Scheming Comes to an End
Ohio woman faces prison and civil lawsuit for attempted theft and tampering.
For nearly 20 years Janet Jones, a former legal assistant in Ohio, forged documents and deceived clients in Huron and Richland counties, profiting by at least $1.4 million. On May 13, Jones entered a plea of no contest to charges of attempted theft and tampering with records, and in July, Jones is scheduled to be sentenced to four years in prison.
Jones’ illegal activity dates as far back as May 1984 and continued through June 2003, according to Rosemary E. Rupert, assistant attorney general, Ohio Attorney General’s Office. Rupert was appointed by the Huron County Ohio Prosecutor as a special assistant prosecutor to assist with the investigation and prosecution. Rupert said she also is aware of a pending civil lawsuit against Jones in Huron County, filed by family members of Hazel Smith, one of Jones’ previous clients.
In 1963, Jones began working for attorney Donald Akers in Plymouth, Ohio, as a legal assistant. Akers’ son, Eric, joined the firm in 1975 and took over when Donald Akers retired. Jones continued working as a legal assistant for the firm under the younger Akers’ direction. When Eric Akers closed the firm in late 1982 to become a professor at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, Jones began advertising legal services out of her home.
“Even though Akers had closed the law practice, he negligently allowed Jones to maintain the appearance that his law practice office was still in operation through Jones’ continued use of the office P.O. box, using Akers’ name with clients, the public and the courts, and using Akers’ name on letterhead, with the address and telephone number of Jones,” Rupert said. “Essentially, clients thought they were using the services of Akers when, in fact, they were dealing directly with Jones, and all correspondence was going to Jones, not Akers.”
Since Jones’ initial court appearance at the arraignment in Huron County, she has been free on her own personal recognizance. She will begin serving her prison time the day after the July sentencing. She can apply for judicial release after serving two years in prison and the prosecutor will not oppose her request. Jones agreed to forfeit her interest in real estate she obtained during the commission of the crimes to which she pled no contest. Property that Jones obtained from her crimes will be forfeited and sold, with the proceeds distributed among victims of six estates.
Inside the Computerized Criminal Mind
Bankruptcy software program found to have engaged in UPL.
The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has effectively given notice to all legal software developers that computers can engage in the unauthorized practice of law, and those nonlawyers who operate the software companies will be found guilty of UPL on the computer’s behalf.
In its Feb. 27 opinion in Reynoso v. Frankfort Digital Services, Ltd. [No. 04-17190] the California court unanimously agreed with a Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel that the seller of an Internet-based software program that helped users prepare bankruptcy filings for $219 was guilty of UPL.
The software in question, Ziinet Bankruptcy Engine, was the brain child of entrepreneur Henry Ihejirika, who was doing business as Frankfort Digital Services, the now-defunct Ziinet.com and 700law.com. Ihejirika sold access to various Web sites he owned to help customers with bankruptcy filings, including Ziinet Bankrupcty Engine. The software, while it was still operating on its Web site, touted itself as an expert system that “knows the law.” Users could enter their own data into the system, and the program would then automatically generate personalized forms for the users to file.
Other critics of the ruling said the biggest losers are the public who would benefit from much-needed legal information at lower costs, and those businesses who want to make sure that the legal landscape is leveled between those who can afford legal services and those who can’t. “I find the part of the decision on UPL wrongheaded and luddite,” said Gerry Goldsholle, Esq., founder and chief executive officer of FreeAdvice.com in Sausalito, Calif., a consumer legal and insurance advice site. “The decision might embolden UPL enforcement fanatics to claim that all legal self-help materials are the practice of law.”
According to Goldsholle, because of the complexity of the bankruptcy code and changing rules as a result of legislation, both lawyers and legal assistants must carefully thread themselves and their clients “through a series of landmines.” Stalford warned, however, that in doing so, paralegals must remember their role in the legal system.
“I would say that paralegals have to be conscious of the fact that they can’t give legal advice. In other words, they can’t tell the bankruptcy client what to do. If it’s an administrative or procedural question, perhaps then a paralegal can say, ‘yes, you will have a meeting of the creditors,’ for example,” she said. “But when it comes to asking the client whether he wants to retain his car or reaffirm his debt, then that is something the client needs to talk to an attorney about. It’s really no different from any other area of law.”
N.C. State Bar Passes New Ethics Opinion
Paralegals now permitted to sign for attorneys under exigent circumstances.
Over the years, paralegals have increasingly become recognized as essential members of law firms and the “right hand” to lawyers. Now, in North Carolina, legal assistants can sign pleadings and court documents on behalf of their supervising attorneys in the attorneys’ absence if exigent circumstances exist.
Passed on Oct. 20, 2006, by the North Carolina State Bar Ethics Council, Formal Ethics Opinion 13 states that “if exigent circumstances require the signing of a pleading in the lawyer’s absence, a lawyer may delegate this task to a paralegal or other nonlawyer staff.” To clarify that he or she is signing on behalf — and not in place of — the attorney, the paralegal is required to put his or her initials after the lawyer’s signature. In addition to closely supervising the paralegal, the attorney must also make sure that the signing will not violate any laws, court orders, local rules or civil procedures.
“I think that the lawyers on the [ethics committee] council realized that a client could be harmed if there was not a practical way to address the few times when there are ‘exigent’ circumstances that prevent the lawyer from signing the pleading,” said Alice Neece Mine, assistant executive director and ethics counsel of the NCSB.
Although Mine said this is the first time the issue has been brought to the NCSB, she presumes the practice is not that uncommon. The opinion was not based on an actual case, but rather an inquiry of a hypothetical situation. All of the inquiries are received from lawyers, said Mine, adding that she thought a lawyer had a specific situation with which he or she was concerned.
Some states, including Ohio and Texas, consider it a UPL violation when paralegals sign on behalf of their attorneys, even with permission.
The NCSB assures that the decision isn’t an endorsement of paralegals practicing law and only applies when the rules are adhered to and required under very special situations, such as the lawyer being out of town, ill or engaged in another court case and the document has to be signed that day.
To prevent the misuse of this action, certain provisions must be followed: The signature of the attorney’s name by a paralegal or nonlawyer can’t violate any law, court order, local rule or civil procedure; the responsible lawyer must have provided the appropriate level of supervision under the circumstances of the situation; and the signature must clearly indicate that another person has signed on the attorney’s behalf.
Closure could affect accreditation of paralegal programs throughout California.
At midnight on July 30, the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, which regulates and establishes educational standards for approximately 1,500 of California’s private institutions, including some paralegal programs, is slated to close its doors.
Concerns quickly sparked through the paralegal community upon learning that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed Assembly Bill 2810, which would have extended the life of the bureau until July 1, 2008. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill in September 2006, explaining in his veto message that “the Bureau’s Operations and Administrative Monitor issued an exhaustive report in September 2005, stating that the statutes were fundamentally flawed and without complete statutory reform the program would [be] destined for failure.”
According to Business and Professions Code §6450(c)(2), one criterion to become a paralegal in California is “a certificate of completion of a paralegal program at, or a degree from, a postsecondary institution that requires the successful completion of a minimum of 24 semester (or equivalent) units in law-related courses and that has been accredited by a national or regional accrediting organization or approved by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education.”
“What this means for aspiring paralegals is they need to be certain of the accreditation of the school which they attend,” said Michelle Whitaker, president of the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations. “This is not only true for paralegals but for all [people] attending any private college or vocational school for the purpose of earning any degree or certificate.”
Nals Purchases a House
First national association to buy its own facility.
Nals … the association for legal professionals purchased a new permanent residence in Tulsa, Okla., for the Nals Resource Center, making it the only legal professional association to buy its own home.
The announcement of the 4,500-square-foot building purchase was made at the Nals Professional Development and Education Conference, held March 9 through March 10. The new location also will feature the Nals Foundation Learning Center, which will be available for training retreats and meetings of local, state and regional groups.
“The association has long wanted to have its own home, and investing in a permanent home versus renting just makes good business sense,” said Nals President Kathy Siroky, PP, PLS, a paralegal at Davis & Cannon in Sheridan, Wyo.
According to Tammy Hailey, CAE, Nals executive director, who was authorized by the Nals Board to research ownership options, space in the rented Nals Resource Center location has been very limited over the years. “Nals holds an annual professional development conference in Tulsa each year, and our members have consistently expressed their desire to visit the Nals Resource Center, their association home,” Hailey said. “It was absolutely impossible to fulfill their desire at our [rented] location.”
While the previous facility was located in what Hailey called a less desirable area of Tulsa, she said the new building, located at 8159 East 41st St., is in a very marketable location.
“Nals was formed in 1929, and we are an association that is strong in history; we will showcase some of our historical pieces in the association’s home,” Siroky said. “It will be a place our members can be proud to call home.” At press time, the Nals Resource Center was scheduled to move to its new permanent location at the end of June.
Education On the Go
Obtaining CLE credit through podcasts is the next big thing.
The next time you pull up to a drive-thru window, try placing the following order: “I’d like a CLE in MP3 format with extra content and timely information. And please hold my interest.” You might just get what you ask for.
Obtaining continuing legal education credit by downloading and listening to legal podcasts is a new trend to help meet the demands of busy legal professionals. Many attorneys and paralegals are turning to these podcasts, which come in the form of digital audio files that can be distributed via the Internet and downloaded for playback on portable media players or computers, said Jen Van Ness, an antitrust paralegal who formerly worked in the law practice technology unit at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C.
“The proliferation of personal audio devices like MP3 players at affordable prices has created demand for more audio content packaged so you can listen to what you want, where you want, when you want,” Van Ness said. “Dovetail this portability and convenience with the increasing trend toward mobility and the law, and you have a great fit for satisfying a CLE requirement on the go.”
At least 20 states currently offer CLE credit for listening to podcasts, including California, New York and Texas. However, mandatory and minimum CLE requirements and acceptance of formats such as podcasts vary depending on the jurisdiction, said Peter Glowacki, director of the American Bar Association Center for CLE.
However, Mills said he was at first hesitant about CLE being offered via podcasts. He worried that paralegals and attorneys would simply download the podcast, get the CLE credit, but not actually listen to the podcast. To prevent this, some organizations require online or written tests, while others require participants to sign a certification that acknowledges they listened to or participated in the online CLE.
“The self-governing honesty approach might be the most realistic method to address the reality of the situation,” he said. “Part of me believes that placing onerous restrictions on online CLE will have the dual effect of No. 1: dissuading honest paralegals from engaging in respectable online educational opportunities and No. 2: encouraging less-scrupulous paralegals to game the system.”
Certain people are going to participate in CLE because they want to learn and are interested in furthering their education to better serve their clients,” Mills said. “Other people are going to participate in CLE simply to fulfill some legal or professional requirement. I came to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter whether CLE is in person or by podcast.”
LEAP to the Future
New NALA program prepares members to become leaders.
The National Association of Legal Assistants has created a new program that will prepare its current members to become its future leaders. At its spring board of director’s meeting in March in Tulsa, Okla., the association formally adopted the Leadership Enhancement and Preparation program, a yearlong leadership training program that will have its first meeting on July 12, 2007, at NALA’s 32nd annual convention in New Orleans.
“The LEAP concept grew from our belief that it would be better to prepare volunteers with the concepts and challenges of NALA leadership before serving on a national board or committee, than to rely on orientation sessions after service begins,” said Tita Brewster, ACP, president of NALA.
The program will consist of monthly Webcast sessions and telephone conferences in which participants will engage in learning activities such as lectures, reading, work assignments and role playing that will enhance their public speaking skills and skills for working in small groups. In addition to developing leadership skills, participants will learn about ethical issues board members face in their service, legal issues related to NALA’s business practices and the ongoing responsibilities of board members. Participants also will learn about the structure and interconnections of all the certifying boards, committees, members and affiliated associations. All of the board members will be involved with LEAP, with some acting as either teachers or mentors.
Although the program will focus on leadership skills that paralegals can use for career advancement, it is primarily designed to prepare future NALA leaders. “We believe this early leadership training and support will reinforce the strength and progress of the association by preparing new leaders to take charge when they take office,” Brewster said.
The LEAP application and a schedule of classes for the 2007-2008 program are available on NALA’s Web site at www.nala.org. Although the deadline to apply for the 2007-2008 program was May 31, 2007, the deadline for applications for 2008-2009 soon will be listed on NALA’s Web site.
From Texas to Tuscany
Paralegals from the
State Bar of Texas Paralegal Division broaden
In mid-April, a group of paralegals from the Paralegal Division of the State Bar of Texas visited Florence, Italy, for a weeklong adventure. This trip was the third in a series of annual international trips organized by the division and offered as a chance for paralegals to travel together while studying legal systems and cultures in other countries. Florence was chosen as this year’s destination by Javan Johnson, president of the Paralegal Division of the State Bar of Texas. “It is one of those places full of history, full of culture, and I just really felt that Italy would be a really wonderful place for our group visit,” Johnson said.
The idea for the weeklong international trips came about in 2004 when Kim Cantu, CP, the president of the paralegal division at the time, wanted the Division to sponsor a special trip to bring paralegals from all over Texas together to exchange ideas and bond, while learning about legal systems in other cultures.
“I set this travel offering as one of my goals during my term in office,” Cantu said. “I am all about providing benefits to members, really showing [them] that the organization wants to do things for its members and enabling [them] to talk about the great things being provided by the organization to their attorneys and also talk about the Division’s activities to other paralegals across the United States.”
Each year, the president of the paralegal division chooses the location for the trip while its tour company, ACIS, plans the travel arrangements, such as air fare, accommodations and other details. The trip takes several months to plan, and each fall, the destination and details are publicized to paralegal division members via the Division magazine, and through events, fliers and e-mail blasts. So far, each trip has been guided by ACIS Tour Manager Christopher Relton, an English solicitor (general legal adviser) by education.
Arrangements for the May 2008 trip to Ireland already are underway. Stops will include Dublin, Cork and Killarney. No matter where they go each year, the goal for the trips always is the same: to offer a way to travel and network as a group while being exposed to legal systems and cultures in other countries. “We have many persons who travel with us, who may not necessarily have [someone] to travel with otherwise, and they enjoy being part of the group,” Johnson said.
Open for Business
In the world of word processing there is Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect. Business, though, requires much more than a basic word processing software program, and purchasing a complete office suite can be expensive; enter OpenOffice.org. OpenOffice.org features all the tools found in a traditional office suite, such as Writer for word processing, Calc for spreadsheets, Base for database creation, Impress for multimedia presentations, Draw for graphics and Math for computing equations and formulas, but with one big difference — it’s free. OpenOffice.org does, however, accept contributions, both monetary and in the form of programming, writing, marketing, quality assurance, graphics and language. For more information, visit www.openoffice.org.
It’s a Fact
Not all legal professionals have the time or money to devote to traveling long distances to fulfill continuing legal education requirements. With online CLE, users can dedicate 10, 20 or even 45 minutes at a time to a program that offers credit. At www.factumonline.com, launched by Factum, legal professionals can earn CLE credit in subjects ranging from “How Not to Commit Malpractice With Your Computer,” to the “Essential Guide to Electronic Discovery and Computer Forensics, Part 1.” All Webcast programs come with course materials, list which states offer credit for the course and are presented in Adobe Flash. By registering with factumonline.com, legal professionals can purchase a program, allot however many minutes they have time for and then return to their busy schedules. To view Factum’s list of course offerings, visit www.factumonline.com.
The quest to be more environmentally friendly has propelled environmental law to new heights, making it imperative for legal professionals to stay abreast of any changes in the law. “Global Climate Change and U.S. Law” by Michael B. Gerrard, dives into climate change regulation and associated litigation. The author also explores the regional, state and local actions and includes a 50-state survey on the response to climate change. The book also scrutinizes the corporate role, including disclosure issues; fiduciary duties of officers and directors; insurance and climate change; subsidies; tax policy; and technological innovation. The last part of the book catalogs efforts to reduce emissions, programs underway in Japan, Australia and the U.S. and other methods such as emissions trading and carbon sequestration. The book also includes relevant terminology, acronyms, endnotes and an index.
Gathering evidence in preparation of trial is no small feat. “Evidence Management for the Paralegal: Gathering, Analyzing and Preserving Evidence” by Stacey Hunt, CLA, CAS, and Ellen Sheffer, published by Thomson Delmar Learning, simplifies the process, from beginning to end. Covering topics such as what exactly is evidence; gathering evidence from public, private and governmental sources; and employing methods of discovery to acquire all forms of evidence, paralegals can add to their repertoire of skills. In addition to key words and review exercises, the book offers case scenarios that lead the reader from initial facts and information to final conclusion and solution. Priced at $44.95, the book will be available online on July 16 at www.delmarlearning.com.
The use of animation for courtroom presentations has become increasingly popular. However, the use of animation is not new, with its roots tracing back to the late 1980s. Z-axis recently introduced History of Animation in Court, a series of podcasts detailing the use of animation in courtroom environments over the years. The series shows how the use of animation has evolved and introduces specific subjects, such as airplane crashes, mechanical devices, explosions, drug and chemical reactions and terrorist attacks. To download the series, go to www.zaxis.com and click on “Z-Axis’ Podcasts.”
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