Paralegal in Middle of Conflict of Interest Controversy

It’s not unusual for a firm to use tough tactics when litigating a case. But tough tactics cost Patricia Dillman, (a litigation support manager who came up through the ranks as a paralegal) her job.

This story seems to be everywhere

After working under three bosses in less than a year, Dillman, the director of Holland & Knight’s litigation support group, decided to look for a fresh start. She settled on not only a different firm, Hughes Hubbard & Reed, but also a new city. Dillman accepted a $200,000 annual salary to move from Washington to Hughes Hubbard’s New York office.

In September 2007, Dillman put in her two weeks and prepared for the move. But then Hughes Hubbard informed her that because of a possible conflict, raised by Holland, there was no longer an offer. Dillman was out a job. She responded by suing her former firm for tortious interference in D.C. Superior Court in November, asking for $300,000 in damages.

Hughes Hubbard’s decision to rescind its offer stems from an oil spill off the northwest coast of Spain in 2002. The tanker Prestige sank, spilling most of its load of 77,000 metric tons of oil. It was Spain’s worst environmental disaster, damaging the fishing and tourism industries. Hughes Hubbard is representing the American Bureau of Shipping in a lawsuit filed by the Spanish government in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Holland is representing the Spanish government.

But what I have an issue with is not so much that one firm may be using this paralegal as a pawn in the case but her own attorney has issued a statement that clearly underplays ethics and conflict of interest because Dillman is a paralegal. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Lynne Bernabei, Dillman’s attorney and a name partner at Bernabei & Wachtel. “The bar has an ethical concern with lawyers being stopped from moving from one firm to another firm. But Dillman was a paralegal.”

Excuse me???  The implied word missing here is "Dillman was [only] a paralegal."  Is this to imply that the bar has an ethical concern about lawyers but not paralegals?  If Bernabei is using the fact that Dillman was a paralegal, now litigation support manager, and not a lawyer and therefore not held to the same ethical standard, Dillman should get another lawyer – now.

Paralegals are held to the same standard.  Build your ethical wall or rescind the offer, take the steps to ensure the paralegal has no contact with the case but do not dismiss the paralegal’s value to the firm, knowledge of the case or potential conflict of interest by virtue of the fact the paralegal is "only" a paralegal.  Has Bernabei not read up on any of the latest requirements for paralegals?  Scary.

It should also be pointed out that Dillman accepted a $200,000 position.  So for those paralegals who think they’re limited in scope and salary, start thinking outside the salary survey. 

It turns out that Dillman only worked 15 hours on the case.  So whatever happens here will be interesting to watch.  Stay tuned.  I’m sure there’s more.