Plagiarism in the Legal Field

Pad of Paper & PenBy Brian Craig

An article appearing in the March 2012 edition of the North Carolina Law Review, Cooper J Strickland, The Dark Side of Unattributed Copying and the Ethical Implications of Plagiarism in the Legal Profession, 90 N.C. L. Rev. 920 (2012), addresses the issue of plagiarism in the legal profession. While the law review article focuses mostly on the ethical issues for lawyers, it is also important for paralegals and paralegal students to understand the definition of plagiarism, the potential consequences for plagiarism, and how to avoid plagiarism.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as “[t]he deliberate and knowing presentation of another person’s original ideas or creative expressions as one’s own.”

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “plagiarize” as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; to use (another’s production) without crediting the source; to commit literary theft; to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.”

Defining and identifying plagiarism can sometimes be a challenge and the situation should be looked at on a case by case basis. A standard definition is not possible because of context. One good online source for plagiarism is the website at maintained by the plagiarism detection software company iParadigms, LLC that owns TurnitIn software. provides the following situations as potential forms of plagiarism: 1) turning in someone else’s work as your own; 2) copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit; 3) failing to put a quotation in quotation marks; 4) giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation; 5) changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit; and 6) copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not.

Even if you cite the source, copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work or a large percentage of the work make constitute plagiarism. It is important to have original analysis in any written paper, assignment, memorandum, or brief while still citing sources.

What are the potential consequences for plagiarism?

The conclusion in the North Carolina Law Review article states that it is possible for an attorney to commit plagiarism and to be punished for it as an ethical violation. A lawyer can face discipline from the state bar or the state supreme court for plagiarism. The court may also not award attorneys’ fees if the work is not original.

Along with the potential consequences for an ethical violation for lawyers, there are also potential copyright issues with plagiarism and using legal briefs. In February 2012, two lawyers, Edward White and Kenneth Elan, filed a class action suit against the parent companies of Westlaw and LexisNexis for using briefs in the brief banks sold by their respective companies without permission. The case name is White et al v. West Publishing Corp et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-1340.

Students who plagiarize material can face serious consequences. Some of the potential repercussions for plagiarizing material in a paper or written assignment include failure of the assignment, failure of the course, and possible expulsion from the college or university. Be sure to check the syllabus and university catalog for more information on academic honesty.

How to avoid plagiarism?

Knowing that plagiarism can result in serious consequences, how can one avoid plagiarism? Put simply, the best way to avoid plagiarism is to properly give credit where credit is due. Citing sources is critical. Be sure to learn and use the proper citation format where it is APA, Bluebook, or another citation style. Even if the citation format is not perfect, an attempt to cite a source is much better than not citing the source at all. Most people don’t learn how to cite sources overnight and being able to properly cite sources is a good skill that one can acquire and develop through time, practice, and experience.

If a paralegal student is unsure if something is considered plagiarism, the student should contact the instructor for clarification. You can send a draft of the assignment to your instructor via email and ask for an opinion and review. Just make sure to provide sufficient time for the instructor to review the draft and don’t wait until the last minute before the assignment deadline. If a working paralegal has questions whether a written work is plagiarized, consider contacting the supervising attorney for clarification. Getting a second opinion can be helpful. Citing sources, especially authoritative sources, adds credibility and legitimacy to any analysis, especially in the law. In the legal field, legal precedent is critical so it is important to cite those relevant authorities. Many practicing lawyers will often look to recent law review articles or judicial opinions on how to properly cite authorities. When in doubt, it is always better to be on the side of caution and cite the source.