Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, June 14, 2018

What is so hard about attribution?

A Chicago attorney may be in trouble for plagiarism. The abrupt writing style change in the middle of his brief was easily Googled and more than 1,000 words were discovered to be lifted from two separate sources - a law bulletin and a primer series. 

Plagiarism of this sort is not hard for the reader to detect. For law students, it means an honor code violation, and for licensed attorneys it means possible ethical violations. There is little room to argue that it was done unknowingly, and at the least, this type of behavior is negligent. Using over 1,000 words though, it is a stretch to believe that laziness and arrogance weren't also involved.

Most people first encounter the concept of plagiarism in an academic setting, where they are taught that plagiarism consists of using the words or ideas of another without attribution. For example, the Modern Language Association defines plagiarism thus:

“Using another person’s ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source constitutes plagiarism.... [T]o plagiarize is to give the impression that you wrote or thought something that you in fact borrowed from someone, and to do so is a violation of professional ethics.

“Forms of plagiarism include the failure to give appropriate acknowledgment when repeating another’s wording or particularly apt phrase, paraphrasing another’s argument, and presenting another’s line of thinking."

In academic writing, a premium is put on finding and communicating ideas that have not been discovered before. Law students must write their law review articles on a subject not yet preempted by another author. They must find something unique to say about a topic. Practicing attorneys, on the other hand, have a different focus. Most often they need to use another's words in order to support their own argument. It is the existence of another's idea that makes their case stronger. So it remains baffling why a practicing attorney would not give attribution to his source. (Frequently, it appears as if attribution is given because citations are copied and paste along with the text - but another has arranged these words in a particular, unique way, and that must be credited).

This behavior is further puzzling when it is done without much effort to to hide the offense. Some work went into finding the excerpt, and shoving it into the right spot in the document, so why not revise the words and the style to match the rest? Does this plagiarizer think he can so blatantly submit a patchwork document and it not be noticed? Not likely, and not ethical or professional.

In the case of the Chicago attorney referenced here, he charges $400.00 per hour. Apparently, copy and paste is the best his client can expect for that pittance of a fee. 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2018/06/what-is-so-hard-about-attribution.html

Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink

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