Associates working in a law firm may often times feel like they are serving two masters: their law firm and their obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Associates have a unique roll; they sometimes bear the weight of completing different legal services under the supervision and direction of the law firm’s partners or other senior attorneys. They don’t yet have any clients of their own, but they are honing their skills for later in their careers when they will.
Although they have a seemingly junior role, they must still comply with certain professional and ethical obligations. However, as mentioned earlier, it may sometimes be difficult for associates to comply with their duties as they have to follow their superiors’ directions as well as their personal obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct.
We’re going to look at five areas that are particularly important to associates navigating the professional duties and obligations that may come up during the first years of their careers.
Associates may sometimes feel like they aren’t supposed to question what is asked of them, and that only the law firm’s partners are responsible for making sure that matters are handled in an ethical manner. However, they are in the wrong on this one. Associates should never turn a blind eye to any ethical wrongdoings and must adhere to their obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct. Associates will typically not be excused from any violations of their duties by simply stating that they were following orders.
Any associate who observer misconduct should take the appropriate steps to alert others, usually the law firm’s internal risk manager or general counsel. This is the same course of action encouraged by the Model Rules for all lawyers to “inform the appropriate professional authority” when they have knowledge of another lawyer violating their professional duties.
The first step should be to alert the law firm’s internal risk managers to any potential ethical or professional issues. In doing so, associates are protecting their clients, their firms, and their reputations. It’s generally not a good idea to stay silent about issues that may negatively impact the client or the firm. Law firms usually take steps to make sure that junior attorneys know what is expected of them and they are encouraged to report any violations.
Associates are usually supervised by more senior attorneys, but even early on, they may also choose to delegate certain tasks to secretaries, paralegals, legal assistants, and other administrative professionals. In those situations, associates have a duty to oversee and supervise the work done by others.
However, associates can be wary of delegating tasks to nonlawyers that might constitute the unauthorized practice of law. In addition, associates who are supervising nonlawyers must also ensure that they are not instructing them to fulfill any assignments that the associates themselves are ethically prohibited from doing. For example, if an associate is not allowed to have direct contact with a witness, they cannot instruct anyone else to do so in their stead. That stays true for attorneys of any level.
Posting on Social Media
Nowadays, social media is particularly useful for attorneys. It also allows associates to build relationships and networks within the legal community and also reach potential clients.
However, there are certain costs that come with these benefits; whenever posting to social media websites, associates should take care not to violate any of their professional duties. Personal social media profiles, for example, could count as legal advertisements and they may be subject to the restrictions of the Rules of Professional Conduct. An associate could also accidentally establish an attorney-client relationship or breach duties of confidentiality by giving advice and posting certain information online.
In certain situations, associates may find themselves in trouble with their firms if they accidentally create a business conflict. Posting a personal opinion on social media about an industry or a company could cause trouble for the associate’s firm that might represent that industry or company.
Associates may sometimes take a second job to explore other interests or to help with the costs of law school debts or other expenses. Some associates choose a job in an unrelated field, but those pursuing outside legal work face unique risks. Some of those risks can be addressed by letting the law firm know of your second job and getting their consent, as well as the consent of any clients that may be affected. However, this does not absolutely exclude the possibility of other potential risks.
For example, associates who are transporting and working on files from their second legal job may increase the risk of breaching confidentiality or potential conflicts of interest when working for clients during their day jobs. Additionally, this creates insurance coverage risks. Moonlighting associates may trigger their firm’s policy even if a representation is not directly affiliated with the firm. In a worst-case scenario, the associate could be held personally liable for alleged malpractice.
A second job also represents a risk to productivity and ability to meet deadlines in an associate’s day job, increasing the chances of making mistakes and causing headaches for the law firm.
Everything we’ve discussed above provides an overview of some of the challenges that an associate may face while trying to adhere to their professional and ethical duties. Although associates are used to being supervised by more senior attorneys or partners, they should always take great care not to overlook their own duties as attorneys.
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