Paralegal Authority: A Case Study
The term “paralegal” is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as: “1). A person who assists a lawyer in the performance of various legal tasks and activities associated with the representation of clients. 2). One who assists a lawyer in their routine work but who is without the qualified status of a solicitor or barrister (England and Wales), attorney (U.S.), or advocate; known more commonly in the U.S. as a legal assistant. 3). a person with specialized training who assists lawyers.”
Clearly, a paralegal is vested with an inherent amount of authority in order to successfully assist the attorney or attorneys within the office of which they employed. This is a gross understatement, however. Paralegals are tasked with providing the legwork and legal preparation for the myriad of cases they are assigned to, which include investigating the facts of a case, writing reports, filing and organizing important paperwork, scheduling interviews and depositions and holding true to any deadline established by the court to keep the law firm on track of all hearings and filing dates. These are just some of the roles and responsibilities shouldered by paralegals. If a paralegal proves trustworthy, then that person may be elevated to the position of office manager and will be responsible for handing payments from bank accounts and personally managing attorney schedules in addition to managing other non-attorney employees. So, what is the point being made here? Well, a paralegal often can be responsible for essentially managing an entire law office. This is especially true for solo practitioners and boutique law offices with only a few associates in employ.
Paralegal Authority in the Szymonek Case
As an example of how personal relationships can transgress ethical rules within a law office, consider the case of paralegal Ashley Szymonek who was employed by the Law Office of Art (Arturo) Guzman in San Marcos, TX, a small town located east of San Antonio. According to a February 11, 2022 article from Bloomberg Law, Attorney Guzman “sued his longtime paralegal Ashley Szymonek after waking up from a dayslong coma having been poisoned by her, and finding out that Szymonek created an elaborate scheme to get him disbarred and killed, the court said.” This strange case has been in the court system since 2020 and involves Szymonek being sued for alleged theft of law firm funds, among the other charges and involves Ashely’s husband Paul as well.
I am not sure who is at fault here, either the Szymoneks or Attorney Guzman or both parties to one degree or another. What is important however and germane to this article are the facts according to the opinion of the Texas Court of Appeals case which state that Ashley was Guzman’s paralegal and sole employee for about ten years, had committed “multiple deceptive, fraudulent, and illegal acts,” including stealing from his law practice and failing to respond to a client complaint—leading to his disbarment.
In addition, the facts according to Guzman further allege that Ashley told people that he was depressed and not taking care of his law practice in an attempt to lay the groundwork for people to believe he had committed suicide when she attempted to poison him with antifreeze in April 2020. In addition to being Guzman’s paralegal and sole employee, it was established that Ashley also managed the law firm’s day-to-day business, handling its Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) and other bank accounts, and maintaining his malpractice insurance. She was also the firm’s primary contact for bankers, accountants, and others, and her personal email was used for much of the firm’s electronic correspondence, including bank notifications. In addition to building Guzman’s confidence in the business environment, Guzman said, she became his “right-hand person” and his “ride-or-die” in personal matters as well, helping him adjust after his divorce from his wife Valarie Guzman in 2012 and building close relationships with his children.
Importance of Paralegal Professionalism
The main takeaway for the current or aspiring paralegal is that you may very well become acquainted, perhaps intimately so, with your attorney employer’s office and even personal background and dealings. This can be an alluring situation which could lead to high praise and trust from the attorney employer but also may become a trap perhaps resulting in the idiom “familiarity breeds contempt,” or even worse such as loss of employment, civil charges, or even criminal charges being leveled. This case has stayed within the civil court system with Guzman ultimately amending his complaint and suing the Szymoneks for the torts of assault and battery, invasion of privacy, libel and slander, common law fraud and conversion, and breach of contract.
The future outcome of this case is unknown at this point and will play out within the Texas court system. However, the message is clear and should serve as a warning; keep and hold to the tenets of paralegal professionalism throughout all stages of your career: Maintain professional conduct; Avoid unauthorized practice of law; and Maintain confidentiality and follow disclosure laws. Trust and loyalty flow both ways between employer and employee and adhering to the tenets of the paralegal ethics will serve you well and provide a strong foundation for a successful and rewarding career.
Written by Professor Jeffrey Hauck
Professor Jeffrey Hauck currently resides in Texas with his wife and family. He is serving in the U.S. Army as a Space Operations Officer for an Innovation Command providing guidance and assessments for Theater and Homeland Defense missions. His military service includes more than twenty years of experience both as a U.S. Army Non-Commissioned and Commissioned Officer employed as an Airborne Infantry Pathfinder; Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) basic branch Officer; and now a Space Operations Officer (FA-40). His law enforcement career includes fifteen years of service as a municipal police officer hired, and twice promoted, through the Civil Service Commission.
Professor Hauck retired from law enforcement at the rank of Sergeant as a platoon shift supervisor and administrator. He possesses many years of training, lecturing, & business management experience as well as more than fifteen years of experience as a Licensed Private Detective (LPD). During the years of 2006 – 2014 he was Licensed and Bonded as a Private Detective empowered to conduct private investigations throughout the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of Alabama.
Professor Hauck is currently licensed as a Private Investigator in the State of Texas. He earned a Juris Doctor (JD) Degree and was a fellow at the Law & Government Institute earning specializations in both Administrative and Constitutional Law at Widener University School of Law. He also holds a Master of Science (MSc) degree in Criminal Justice, a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in Criminal Justice, and a Career Diploma as a Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate.
As a law enforcement officer Professor Hauck held certification to teach at the Police Academy Level (PA Act 120) as a Special & General law enforcement Educator/Trainer. He is credentialed as a Certified Law Enforcement Trainer (CLET), Certified Protection Officer (CPO), Certified International Investigator (CII), and Certified Instructor in the areas of academics, skills, and firearms for Pennsylvania’s Act 235, The Lethal Weapons Training Act. He has been teaching as an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice and Paralegal Studies in both brick and mortar and distance institutions since 2002. He is a proud member of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), the Texas Association of Licensed Investigators (TALI), and other professional organizations.