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How could California’s initial effort to regulate legal paraprofessionals be more effective?

Legal paraprofessionals are increasingly making a difference in the legal profession and community. In this context, should the California legislature take the final step of implementing a regulatory agency and registry for legal paraprofessionals.

Paralegal Regulation: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Author:
Lori H. Young, MPS is a senior paralegal at the law firm of Thompson Von Tungeln, in Lancaster, California, a P.C. with more than 25 years of experience. Lori recently graduated from The George Washington University obtaining her master’s degree in Professional Studies with an emphasis in Paralegal Studies. Lori is also an adjunct instructor at Antelope Valley College and College of the Canyons instructing technology and paralegal courses.


Abstract:
Growth of the paralegal profession has brought a significant increase in roles, responsibilities, and titles associated with the profession, as well as a push for needed regulation. As California legislators took positive steps to regulate the paralegal profession, the resulting legislation contained very real setbacks for both the profession and its consumers. California’s statutes regulating paralegals are complex and convoluted and make it difficult to determine which legal paraprofessional is qualified and authorized to perform what type of work. An analysis of the statutes reveals the confusion and risks consumers and attorneys will encounter when seeking to employ a legal paraprofessional. There is a need for a regulatory agency and registry to protect legitimate paralegal professionals as well as their consumers.


CALIFORNIA BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONS CODE §§ 6400 – 6456
Paralegal Regulation: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back


Introduction

The paralegal profession has persistently continued to grow since its infancy in the 1960s. This growth has brought a significant increase in roles, responsibilities, and titles associated with the profession, as well as a push for needed regulation. California has been at the forefront in regulating the paralegal profession. As California legislators took positive steps to regulate the paralegal profession, the resulting legislation contained very real setbacks for both the profession and its consumers.

California’s statutes regulating paralegals are complex and convoluted and make it difficult to determine which legal paraprofessional is qualified and authorized to perform what type of work. An analysis of the statutes reveals the confusion and risks consumers and attorneys will encounter when seeking to employ a legal paraprofessional. There is a need for a regulatory agency and registry to protect legitimate paralegal professionals as well as their consumers.

In the 1990s, the California legislature took the first step in regulating the legal paraprofessionals. Before the legislature stepped in, a non-lawyer could assume the title of paralegal or legal assistant without any requirement of education, experience, or direct supervision by an attorney. The California legislature began with statutory regulation of unlawful detainer assistants (UDAs) and legal document assistants (LDAs). The statutes governing the UDAs and the LDAs fall under Chapter 5.5. Legal Document Assistants and Unlawful Detainer Assistants. A few years later, the California government enacted legislation to regulate the paralegal profession. The statutes governing paralegals fall under Chapter 5.6. Paralegals. Both Chapters 5.5 and 5.6 appear under the California Business and Professions Code §§ 6400 – 6456.

The statutory requirements for UDAs are different from those that regulate LDAs and paralegals. The statutory requirements for LDAs are likewise different from those that regulate paralegals. The codes contain various regulatory, educational, and registration requirements for each paraprofessional. Navigating the legal paraprofessional system in the state of California is complicated due to the variety of titles held by a paraprofessional and the complexity of the associated regulatory codes.

The first section of this paper will discuss the role of UDAs, LDAs, and paralegals -- the three main types of paraprofessionals regulated under California Business & Professions (B &P) Code §§ 6400 – 6456. The next section of the paper will examine why the California legislature took steps to regulate the profession of UDAs, LDAs, and paralegals. It will also discuss the risk and confusion a consumer or attorney faces when selecting or employing a paraprofessional to perform substantive legal work. The third section will address how the supervising attorney indirectly regulates paralegals and how UDAs and LDAs do not have regulation. Finally, this paper will discuss the need for a single regulatory agency and registry to oversee legal paraprofessionals.

For California’s initial effort to regulate legal paraprofessionals to be effective, it must take the final step of implementing a regulatory agency and registry for all legal paraprofessionals. This will enable consumers and attorneys the ability to determine the types of services available from each category of paraprofessional, including statutory limitations on the paraprofessional’s authority, and whether the paraprofessional has any record of discipline.



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