When you hear the word “plagiarism,” you probably think of student essays and literary works, not legal work product.
And yet lawyers can be plagiarists as easily as high schoolers and published authors.
For an eye-opening example, consider a recent ruling in Stilp v. Borough of West Chester (U.S. Eastern District, Pa.), where a defense attorney was sanctioned for lifting chunks of opposing counsel’s motion – typos and all – and using it in her reply.
The cut-and-paste job was “blatant” and “neither slight nor subtle,” the court said.
“The blatant similarities between these two motions and the accompanying briefs are inescapable,” writes UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh on the law blog Reason, quoting from the opinion. “Nearly every paragraph of [defendant’s] motion and brief contain language lifted word-for-word from [plaintiffs’] motion. That this was the product of plagiarism is apparent from the fact that [defendant’s] motion and brief even reproduce three editing errors—two missing closed quotation marks and a missing space—from [plaintiffs’] filings.”
To make matters worse, counsel in some places failed to even change the names of the parties.
“In light of these telltale markers, there can be no serious argument that [the] filings were not the product of plagiarism,” the court said.
The court awarded plaintiffs’ lawyers $8,483.55 in fees and costs, which was reduced to $2,256.
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4 Key Takeaways
- Denial only digs your hole deeper. At an emergency hearing, defense counsel eventually acknowledged – “after some initial reticence” – the misdeed. “Once it became clear that all escape routes were foreclosed, counsel did finally acknowledge responsibility,” according to the ruling. “And that at least is something…. A lawyer’s duty of candor to the Court includes the duty to own up to their mistakes. Baseless, reflexive denials of clear ethical violations serve only to waste time and resources, usually at the lawyer’s own expense, and do nothing to advance a client’s interests. Indeed, such an approach serves only to dig deeper the hole in which counsel has put herself.”
- Damaging to the profession. “By falsely presenting opposing counsel’s work to the Court as her own, [counsel] has demeaned our profession, obstructed the administration of justice, and needlessly consumed the time and resources of both the Court and opposing counsel,” according to the court.
- A disservice to the client. “Plagiarism … requires little to no knowledge or skill, and certainly does not reflect the thoroughness and preparation clients expect from members of the bar,” according to the court. “In substituting plagiarism for preparation, counsel presented an unreasoned, error-filled filing and placed both her client’s motion and the potential for alternative resolution at risk.”
- Plagiarism by a lawyer is judged differently than academic plagiarism. “For instance, when a lawyer copies material from a law firm colleague’s old motion, and properly adapts it for the new motion, that’s considered wise use of time and the client's money, not plagiarism,” writes Professor Volokh. “Yet if I were to copy material from another professor, even with the original author’s permission, and submit it as part of my law review article, that would be plagiarism. On the other hand, massive copying from the other side’s work product does seem likely to arouse judges’ ire, and understandably so. And failing to properly adapt the language to fit your client and your facts makes it even more unprofessional.”
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