Professional Ethics in Interdisciplinary Collaboratives: Zeal, Paternalism and Mandated Reporting

Alexis Anderson, Boston College Law School
Lynn Barenberg, Boston College Law School
Paul R. Tremblay, Boston College Law School


In this Article, the authors, two clinical law teachers and a social worker teaching in the clinic, wrestle with some persistent questions that arise in cross-professional, interdisciplinary law practice. In the past decade much writing has praised the benefits of interdisciplinary legal practice, but many sympathetic skeptics have worried about the ethical implications of lawyers working with nonlawyers, such as social workers and mental health professionals. Those worries include the difference in advocacy stances between lawyers and other helping professionals, and the mandated reporting requirements that apply to helping professionals but usually not to lawyers. This Article addresses those concerns in a direct way, using the example of social work as an exemplar for many kinds of interdisciplinary practices.

Part I of the Article explores the commitments of zeal and autonomy in interdisciplinary work involving lawyers and social workers. It acknowledges that social workers and lawyers receive differing training about advocacy stances, attention to the needs of the larger society, and concern for the best interests of clients, and therefore are apt to confront client interactions with dissimilar orientations. But the authors conclude that those differences in orientation in fact offer critical opportunities, when the professionals collaborate, for more effective lawyering, rather than posing a risk to a lawyer's or a social worker's ethical commitments. A lawyer and social worker team are likely to offer clients a richer brand of legal representation when working together than a lawyer working without the collaboration would provide. While some pointed ethical conflicts might arise, the authors contend that those conflicts are not unlike those faced by any reflective lawyer practicing without the benefit of collaboration.

Part II of the Article addresses the mandated reporter issue. When lawyers and social workers (or other helping professionals) collaborate, lawyers tend to be prohibited from reporting suspected child abuse and neglect if learned during a client's representation, while social workers tend to be mandated by state law to make a report. The authors contend that when a social worker serves within a law firm or legal clinic as a consultant to the legal team, the social worker ought not be covered by the state mandated reporting laws if the lawyers are not so covered. If the social worker, by contrast, provides social work services to the law firm's client, though, the state reporting laws will apply, and the collaboration must account for the resulting conflict in confidentiality duties.