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Signs hanging in the windows of Sylvia Cherry’s second floor office on the corner of South B and Third streets in San Mateo, Calif., advertise “Paralegal Services” and her phone number. But not for much longer. Cherry says she will soon replace the sign, as she already has her stationery, brochures and business cards, to comply with a new state law, effective Jan. 1, that bars self-employed individuals who sell legal services to the public from calling themselves paralegals. From now on, Cherry will call herself a “legal document assistant.” “It’s an inconvenience,” says Cherry, who estimates she’s already spent between $700 and $800 to comply with the statute. The law, AB 1761, for the first time in California sets minimum standards for who can be a paralegal and what services a paralegal can perform. The legislation is already having a wide-ranging impact on the paralegal profession in California. In addition to forcing independents like Cherry to rename their businesses, the law is compelling schools to make their paralegal programs more rigorous. The statute is also sending paralegals back to school for continuing legal education credits. And the bill is creating administrative hassles for law firms that must now be much more careful about who gets the paralegal title. Advocates of the statute say the law will prevent paralegals from practicing law illegally and taking advantage of vulnerable clients. But four months after California Gov. Gray Davis signed AB 1761, some paralegals remain highly critical of the law. “This bill is a complete disaster,” says Eryka Fraczek, a San Francisco-based legislative representative to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, an organization that opposed the measure. “What we have here is legislation that is so poorly crafted that anyone who seriously tries to comply with it is in for serious headache.” Fraczek says the law unfairly prohibits paralegals from working independently of attorneys. Indeed, she and other local paralegals have formed a coalition called the California Paralegal Legislative Advocacy Alliance specifically to oppose AB 1761. The group advocates regulating the profession through licensing or certification programs and allowing paralegals to continue to work independently of attorneys. Carolyn Yellis, president of the organization that sponsored AB 1761, the California Alliance of Paralegal Associations, is dismissive of the bill’s naysayers. She attributes the criticism to “people who want to practice law without going to law school” and to a philosophical split in the community over whether paralegals should work only with attorneys or be allowed to directly serve the public. Yellis says CAPA drafted the bill because her organization received hundreds of complaints from consumers about paralegals who stole their money and ruined their cases. “You don’t know what it’s like when you get a call from someone down and out on their luck and their case gets messed up by a paralegal,” says Yellis. Rogue paralegals “are giving us a bad name,” she adds. “It’s time we did something to elevate the profession.” But independents like Cherry say clients in need of low-cost legal services will suffer as a result of the law. “People don’t know about legal document assistants — they know about paralegals,” she says. “The public are the people we serve. If they don’t know how to find us, they can’t use us.” CANS & CAN’TS Not all paralegals are scrupulous in their work with the public, however. In October, in one notorious example, an El Sobrante, Calif., paralegal pleaded no contest to charges he illegally represented people on the verge of eviction in at least 42 cases. According to the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office, the paralegal, Kevin Lowe, deprived his clients of defenses to their evictions by filing defective answers to eviction notices. Lowe was sentenced to a year in county jail and fined $131,400. “I think it’s good that there is a change in the law, because people have been confused about the qualifications of a paralegal,” says Martha Donohoe, the Santa Clara County deputy DA who prosecuted the Lowe case. “Having a definition of a paralegal as someone who works under the supervision of an attorney will help clear up that confusion.” AB 1761, by former California Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer, R-Newport Beach, sets down clear rules about what tasks a paralegal can and can’t perform. The bill states that paralegals can’t provide legal advice, can’t represent a client in court, can’t contract his or her services to anyone but an attorney, and can’t “select, explain, draft or recommend the use of any legal document” to anyone but the attorney for whom the paralegal works. In addition, AB 1761 now requires every paralegal in the state to complete four hours of continuing education courses in legal ethics every three years, and four hours every two years in either specialized or general legal topics. Fraczek and others are critical of the MCLE requirement, saying it makes little sense to create such a rule without creating a regulatory body to enforce it. But Yellis calls the lack of a regulatory body “the beauty of the bill.” “We don’t need a governing body to manage this for us,” says Yellis, who works for Sarnoff Court Reporters and Legal Technology in Irvine, Calif. “It’s going to be the attorney who makes sure the paralegal does it.” At least for the foreseeable future, paralegals have little choice but to comply with the law. AB 1761 provides some tough penalties for violators of the statute: a fine of up to $2,500 per client or up to a year in the county jail. It also allows any consumer to sue and collect attorneys fees for successful civil suits against paralegals under the law. IMPACT ON EDUCATION AB 1761 is also having a dramatic effect on paralegal education in California. New, more rigorous course requirements mean schools are lengthening their paralegal certification programs — or electing to shut the door on paralegal programs all together. “What the law means is that we pretty much have to double our course and just take what we already teach and cover it more intensively,” says Patty Redlin, who oversees legal education at University of California-Berkeley Extension. That’s because the new legislation states that California paralegals must have a certificate from an American Bar Association-approved certificate program or have a certificate from a paralegal program with 24 semester units — about twice the current requirement of most paralegal programs in California. A college graduate with neither of the above must have one year of “law-related” experience under the supervision of a California attorney. For a high school graduate, three years of experience are required. In either case, the supervising attorney must have three years’ experience practicing in California. The bill doesn’t define the term “law-related.” Educators say the law will also make it more difficult for paralegals to enter the profession by doubling the length — and certainly increasing the price — of most paralegal certification courses. Indeed, two Bay Area institutions have pulled the plug on their paralegal education programs thanks to the new law. Adela Ybarra, staff assistant at the College of Alameda, says the school will no longer offer paralegal courses. “By changing the course requirements, it would mean more money,” Ybarra says. “If it costs more, we won’t be able to recruit students. We’re having a tough time as it is.” Ybarra says 10 students took the college’s most recent six-week course at a cost of $845. Similarly, California State University at Fresno is pulling the plug on its paralegal program, at least for now. But Yellis says she does not see such closures as a problem. “The cost of education is you get what you pay for,” she says. “We’re not trying to put people out of business. What we are trying to do is elevate the profession.” COMPLIANCE HEADACHES The new law is creating some compliance headaches for paralegals and law firm administrators across the state. Morrison & Foerster’s firmwide legal assistant manager Hilary O’Brien says she is working with her human resources department to develop a system to keep track of the firm’s continuing legal education for paralegals. Depending on their education, experience level and length of service at the firm, Cooley Godward’s paralegal director is asking her staff members to produce copies of their bachelor’s or advanced degrees, paralegal certificates and declarations from previous employers to ensure that they have met the minimum requirements for law-related experience. The firm is also taking a second look at out-of-state paralegals who are assigned to work on litigation or trademark work in one of Cooley’s California offices, to make sure they are qualified to practice as paralegals under the new law. “I may be taking this to the nth degree, but I want to make sure Cooley is in compliance in every way,” said Renee Goldhammer, who supervises some 200 paralegals at the firm. But Yellis says large firms with out-of-state offices have nothing to worry about. Paralegals from out of state can work in California without violating the law as long as they are working for a California attorney and qualify as a paralegal in their own state. “It’s really pretty simple,” she says. But that’s little consolation to independents such as Cherry, who says she plans to buy an ad in next year’s Yellow Pages under the heading “Paralegal” that will direct potential customers to the heading “Legal Document Assistant.” “It just gets more expensive, that’s all,” says Cherry. Cynthia Hall, a Brisbane, Calif., independent who helps clients with paperwork related to divorces, incorporations, small claims and other uncontested matters, says she’s gotten around the problem with a new name for her business: “Not Attorneys.” “I refuse to call myself a legal document assistant,” Hall says. “I’m not a typing service. “I just decided to call myself what I’m not,” she adds. “I’m not an attorney. I got tired of people telling me what I can call myself.”

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