A Tale of UPL – Q2 2022 Facts & Findings
An overwhelming caseload, a contested reelection campaign, and a staffing turnover left the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office shorthanded in the summer and fall of 2018. The remaining assistant district attorneys were forced to take on additional responsibilities. One of these assistant district attorneys was Tara Jack, a 20-year lawyer who supervised the office’s traffic and misdemeanor division, including all of that division’s lawyer and non-lawyer personnel.
Over a twelve-month period in 2017 and 2018, the District Attorney’s office hired five individuals to work in Ms. Jack’s division. One of these individuals was an attorney licensed in another state who had recently moved to the Tulsa area and was waiting to take the Oklahoma bar exam. The other four were recent law school graduates who had either just taken the Oklahoma bar exam and were awaiting results or were preparing to take the exam. None of these five individuals were licensed legal interns. They all reported to Ms. Jack, who assigned their cases and supervised their work.
After their hires, these five employees began representing the State of Oklahoma in criminal proceedings in varying scenarios, including making court appearances, delivering opening and closing statements, examining witnesses, questioning jurors, and negotiating plea agreements. The situation came to light when one of these individuals mentioned to a judge before whom she was appearing that she was not licensed as an attorney or a legal intern. After ordering that individual to immediately cease any activities that would constitute the practice of law, the judge contacted the District Attorney’s office. An internal investigation ensued, and it was discovered that five individuals in Ms. Jack’s division had engaged in the practice of law without being properly licensed.
The Oklahoma Bar Association filed a formal complaint against Ms. Jack containing three counts of professional misconduct for violation of the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct (ORPC). The matter was heard by the state bar’s professional responsibility tribunal, which recommended a public censure of Ms. Jack. It was then sent to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which agreed and publicly censured Ms. Jack.
The court agreed with the tribunal’s finding that Ms. Jack’s supervision of the five individuals was negligent and violated five sections of the OPRC. These rules prohibit the unauthorized practice of law, oblige lawyers to ensure their nonlawyer employees conduct themselves in accordance with professional responsibility obligations, and hold lawyers responsible for the misconduct of nonlawyers under their supervision. Rule 8.4(d) asserts a lawyer’s conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice (which “includes some element of deceit, dishonesty, misrepresentation… or other morally reprehensible conduct”) constitutes professional misconduct.
Additionally, the court determined Ms. Jack “knowingly and willfully assisted” the nonlawyer employees on her staff in the unauthorized practice of law. Finally, perhaps the most disturbing finding was that Ms. Jack was “complicit in and responsible for a pattern of dishonesty and misrepresentation” to Oklahoma courts, litigants, and other counsel. This case generated a considerable amount of media attention throughout the state, which was a source of embarrassment for the District Attorney’s entire office and the Tulsa County court system. The court’s opinion expressed concern that Ms. Jack’s conduct could jeopardize the constitutional rights of defendants whose cases were prosecuted by unlicensed prosecutors. The court’s opinion rather bluntly stated that Ms. Jack and the unlicensed individuals “failed to accomplish justice for the defendants whose cases they prosecuted.”
While Ms. Jack was the sole respondent in this process, the court noted in its opinion that it is “fundamentally unfair” for her to take the entire blame. While Ms. Jack was the primary supervisor of the division where the unlicensed individuals worked, the office of the District Attorney was supervised by a first assistant DA and the DA himself. The First ADA acknowledged his responsibility for the office but admitted he had little involvement in the daily activities of the five individuals. The court noted a large DA’s office like this one requires delegation of supervisory duties; however, Ms. Jack was a supervisor who was also subject to supervision herself. In a concurring statement, three of the justices made some rather harsh remarks about the level of blame that should be attributed to Ms. Jack’s supervisors, all the way up to the District Attorney.
The court also noted the five unlicensed individuals were all seeking admission to the Oklahoma Bar at the time of the misconduct and should have understood the significance of practicing law prior to being sworn in and admitted to the Bar.
There are lessons paralegals can take from this case. Paralegals are nonlawyers, just like the unlicensed individuals in this situation. Attorneys are responsible for ensuring their paralegals act in accordance with the relevant codes of ethics and professional responsibility and can be held responsible for the misconduct of those under their supervision. Also, like the unlicensed individuals in this case, paralegals have a duty to know the ethical obligations that govern both paralegals and attorneys in the arenas in which they work and to ensure they always act within those boundaries. An attorney should be able to trust that a paralegal under their supervision has educated themselves on the applicable canons of ethics. There is simply no excuse for a paralegal not to know the ethical principles that govern both the paralegal and the attorneys the paralegal supports.
The five individuals in this case eventually passed the Oklahoma bar exam and were sworn in as licensed lawyers. However, they started their legal careers accused of unethical behavior. Their names have been repeated countless times in court findings and media reports, resulting in undesirable notoriety that could follow them forever.
Don’t let this be you!
Author Biography: Lisa M. Stone, ACP, has been a paralegal for more than 25 years and is currently a Senior Paralegal with T.D. Williamson in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Lisa previously spent 18 years working in employment and litigation practice groups with the Hall Estill law firm in Tulsa. Lisa received her Certified Paralegal designation in 1996 and has earned Advanced Certified Paralegal credentials in Discovery, Contracts Administration/Contracts Management, and Business Organizations. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science. Lisa has been a member of NALA’s Certifying Board since 2016 and is presently the Chairperson. Lisa has also served on the board of the Tulsa Area Paralegal Association in various positions since 2014, including two years as the president. Lisa was the Tulsa County Bar Association Paralegal of the Year in 2014 and was a NALA Affiliated Associations Achievement Award recipient in 2017.