The California Story

Yesterday I did a post based on a Paralegal Today Forum discussion regarding state regulation of paralegals. Today I’m yielding the blog to Stacey G. Hunt, CLA, CAS a paralegal with Duggan Smith & Heath LLP in  San Luis Obispo, California, for a guest post on the history of the California law regulating paralegals:

Hi, Lucy.  Elona is right – UPL and paralegal regulation are two separate issues.  There are huge downsides for  paralegals in states where there is no recognition of the profession at all, either through bar membership or certification or regulation that go beyond people practicing UPL.   In California we tried everything – a Supreme Court opinion/order, regulation through the State Bar, hiring a lobbyist, and were shot down every time.  An interesting string of events allowed us to get through the regulation we have in place now.

Believe it or not, one of the strongest oppositions we received when the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations originally attempted some form of regulation was from the AARP.  They wanted senior citizens to have access to inexpensive legal help, and they thought the only way to do that was through “independent paralegals’ who at the time were practicing UPL.  They did not want traditional paralegals to put those people out of business.  In approximately 1997, the governor of California got into a big disagreement with State Bar and literally shut it down by vetoing the bill approving the funding for the State Bar.  The Bar actually ceased to exist for a couple of years and the “machine” was in complete disarray.  During that time, two bills went through, one creating Unlawful Detainer Assistants and the other creating Legal Document Assistants.  These two new groups were non-attorneys who had to register in their counties and be bonded, but were allowed to help lay people with their court paperwork.  I doubt these bills would ever have passed if the State Bar hadn’t been too busy trying to get itself put back together  to oppose them.

After those statutory schemes were in place, the AARP and other “anti-attorney monopoly” groups were satisfied, so when we came along with our proposed legislation for paralegal regulation, they did not go after us.  Once we talked the independent paralegals into giving up the title and instead embrace the legal document assistant concept, we had overcome most of the opposition out there and our bill sailed through quite easily.  We did have to make concessions that we hated.  One of them was that we were forced to allow disbarred attorneys to be called paralegals, as long as they were properly supervised like we are, which the State Bar viewed as a form of rehabilitation for them so they could eventually get their licenses back.  But we thought that in the big picture it was worth it.

Since the bill became law in 2001, we have been very pleased with the results.  Many of the “Mary’s Beauty Salon and Paralegal Services” signs have come down.  The “become a paralegal in 3 weeks” schools have gone away.  Senior partners at enlightened firms have stopped bringing in their wives and college kids to the office and calling them paralegals.  We learned of a woman in a neighboring city who was advertising herself out as a paralegal/legal document assistant and I was able to call the local police department who put a stop to it.   We finally have case law now (in a California federal court) that actually reduced an attorney’s fee claim because the paralegals were not qualified under the code.  Talk about sending a message!  When it gets to the attorneys’ pocketbooks, they will sit up and take notice.  And I believe they were talking about revising a judicial council form filed in probate matters to recover fees that required the attorney to attest that all paralegals whose fees were being charged to an estate were qualified paralegals under the code.

It is a big fight and well worth it.  I encourage your state paralegal association to continue its efforts.

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