Posts Tagged ‘independent paralegal’

Does it matter that it is cheaper to hire a paralegal to handle your divorce?

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Is it cheaper to hire a paralegal to handle your divorce? That is the question asked in today’s Living/Family Relationship section of in a storyabout Amy Wishart of DoItYourselfDocuments. First of all, hat’s off to Amy for generating such a favorable piece of publicity. She also handled her comments in the article well. Of course, I am principally interested because of the timing of the article in relation to the discussion here and at Paralegalese on the issue of “independent” paralegals.

Here are some points made by Wishart:

For Wishart, being a paralegal means knowing and understanding the legal processes.

“A paralegal can do everything an attorney can do except give legal advice or step inside a court,” she said.

There are two types of paralegals. Wishart is an independent paralegal that prepares documents for individuals who retain her services. There are also paralegals that work for attorneys and can therefore speak on behalf of their employer, Wishart said.

She, like Mr. Martin, who has been quoted on this blog, is careful not to “cross the line”

Because paralegals are not legally allowed to provide their clients with advice, Wishart said many independent paralegals avoid direct contact with their customers. “Somebody who prepares documents can’t give advice, but they have the knowledge,” Wishart said. “It’s a very fine line that cannot be crossed.”

To avoid crossing that line, Wishart, as with many paralegals, has her clients fill out and submit a questionnaire. She then uses the information provided to fill out the appropriate court documents, she said.

“I use the questionnaire to avoid asking questions,” she said.

Perhaps most interesting in terms of where we left this issue in the last post, the story also quotes Amy and another independent paralegal with regard to these problems:

According to Therkildsen, using a paralegal service has its pros, but potential clients should be cautious. “The good thing about paralegal services is the price,” she said. “But anyone can claim they are a paralegal. It is kind of a buyer beware situation.”

Therkildsen recommends starting the hunt for a paralegal with an Internet search. “You want to know if it’s a legitimate business,” she said. “What are their qualifications, experience? Are they licensed with the state?”

Both Therkildsen and Wishart also suggest checking with the Better Business Bureau to ensure there are no complaints against the company. Even if you use an online service, call and talk to someone at the service,” Wishart said. “There are a lot of unscrupulous people out there.”

Therkildsen said finding a qualified paralegal is extremely important. She has seen cases of individuals posing as paralegals who will take their client’s money and nothing more. Other supposed paralegal services simply sell the documents needed to file for bankruptcy and mail the blank forms to the client.

“My pet peeve is people who claim to be a paralegal and sell the documents you can get off the state’s Web site for free,” Therkildsen said.

This last harkens back to the discussion of the many sorts of people out for the most they can possibly get for the least they can possibly do.

Is There a Role for Independent Paralegals?

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Melissa H. of Paralegalese continues a great dialogue regarding independent paralegals asking of the legal profession, “Where are we going?”and  stating, “When people are willing to forego the licensed professional for the regulated document preparer, it’s time to rethink the status quo.”  In my comment to that post I noted there is a tension between the need to provide legal services at an affordable cost and the legal profession’s desire to monopolize the legal field. If the latter is going to continue, the profession must find a way to achieve the former. My rather preliminary research into legal systems in other countries indicate that lawyers continue to flourish even when others are not excluded.

I believe that paralegals are the answer to this problem. The question is how we protect the public while providing that answer. One way is to insist upon supervision by an attorney who has a license to protect. Another is through regulation. You are correct that the legal profession must ultimately deal with the fact that, “When people are willing to forego the licensed professional for the regulated document preparer, it’s time to rethink the status quo.”

One concern I have is that public may become confused by the existence of both supervised and “independent” paralegals. If “independents” are allowed, they must be regulated for the protection of the public (not the protection of lawyers) and should probably be required to call themselves something other than “paralegals.”

Since reading Melissa’s post and making that comment I’ve run across an article entitled, “THE ROLE OF INDEPENDENT PARALEGALS IN IMPROVING THE QUALITY AND DELIVERY OF LEGAL SERVICES” by Joi Pierce Cregler (which is curiously annotated as “Edited for the Bellow-Sacks Project. This document may be used for discussion purposes only. General distribution prohibited.”) While I am not incomplete agreement with the reasoning or the conclusions of the article, it is worth the read for anyone interested in this issue.

The article references some studies that provide important background for this discussion: “Relying upon lawyers alone to increase access to justice has proven to be inadequate. Currently, fewer than seventeen percent of U. S. Lawyers accept pro bono cases. Moreover, given that there have never been more than four thousand American legal aid lawyers, the federally funded legal aid program is able to serve only a very small percentage of the poor. While legal needs are unmet for low- and middle-income Americans, a majority of U. S. legal resources are utilized to serve the wealthiest individuals and corporations. Left unaddressed, this disparity in access to justice will continue to erode public confidence in the legal system and fuel dissatisfaction with the legal profession.” (footnotes omitted) Thus these studies may provide empirical support for Melissa’s instinctive conclusions.

More surprisingly, the article also notes, “The study also found that individuals often do not seek legal assistance because of their perception that the involvement of a lawyer will not solve their legal problem.”(emphasis added)

The article argues for replacing of UPL laws with regard to independent paralegals with a system of regulation and licensing. In the final section of the paper, Cregler “challenges the assumption that licensing Independent Paralegals will create a group of ‘second-class’ legal services providers.”

Paralegal v Legal Assistant – Does it matter?

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

A few months ago a post on the Western New York Paralegals Association bulletin board forum on professionalism included a survey asking whether law firms used the term “paralegal” or the term “legal assistant,” and which term respondents preferred. There were only twelve respondents so, in addition to not being a representative sample of personnel in American law offices  the responds are statistically significant. It is, nonetheless, interesting. One firm used “legal assistant,” five used “paralegal,” and two used the terms interchangeably. Nine of the respondents preferred the use of the term “paralegal,” while none expressed a preference for “legal assistant.”

As noted in a previous post here there is still a lot of confusion both within and without the legal profession as to just what a paralegal is. This confusion is aggravated by the use  of multiple terms for people who perform essentially the same roles. While NALA and ABA have agreed upon a definition, it is of little help to those outside the profession. As the medical profession has learned with regard to physician assistants, standardization of usage would be helpful in the legal profession. The fact (assuming a larger study confirmed this survey sample) that those persons performing the role prefer “paralegal” is significant.

This difficulty is compounded by “independent paralegals” and “legal document assistant professionals,” terms that will be discussed in later posts.