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Daily life won’t be much different for traditional California law firm paralegals since the implementation of state bill AB 1761, according to a roundtable discussion of Silicon Valley, Calif., law firm paralegal managers. The bill, which went into effect Jan. 1, defines a paralegal as one who works under the direction and supervision of an attorney. Although the bill will impact independent paralegals who provide services directly to the public, law firm paralegals are already working within that definition. In addition, paralegals will be required to track their MCLE and be able to document their educational or experience to meet the minimum standards. Palo Alto-based Cooley Godward is “being proactive” about documenting qualifications and MCLE credits, according to Corine Ellsworth, San Francisco Peninsula paralegal program manager. The firm is tracking the documents needed for each individual in the paralegal program, including paralegal certificates, copies of degrees and certification of MCLE credits. Declarations as to the paralegal’s qualifications and certifications of completion of MCLE courses will be signed by a Cooley partner. However, “the paralegals know that the responsibility to provide these documents is ultimately theirs,” said Ellsworth. Sandi Hughes, paralegal manager for the Silicon Valley offices of San Francisco-based Heller Ehrman, White & McAuliffe, said that the managing partner of their office has signed declarations of the qualifications for each paralegal for his or her own file, with proof of possession of at least one of the following: � a paralegal certificate from an ABA-approved program, � a degree with one year law-related experience, � a high school diploma and three-plus years of experience. The copy of the certificate, degree or diploma is attached to the declaration. The firm will be tracking the MCLE credits of each paralegal, but it will also be the individual’s responsibility to keep records up to date. Reaction to the bill is mixed among law firm paralegals. Susan Dworak, a former paralegal manager and president of Exponential Training, a corporate and securities legal training firm, says that paralegals she’s talked to see it as a “rise in the level of professionalism” for the paralegal field. “People who do not perform actual paralegal tasks will not be called paralegals,” noted Dworak. “Paralegals are pleased that the new distinction is going to protect the community at large.” Other paralegal managers don’t believe paralegals at their firms foresee any change in their own professional status as a result of the bill; they see it affecting independent paralegals more than themselves. Reaction among attorneys who are aware of the bill seems to be positive. Grace Carr Lee, paralegal manager at Hoge, Fenton, Jones & Appel in San Jose, Calif., said that the attorneys at her firm were pleased that minimum qualifications and MCLE requirements had been established for paralegals. The firm will use its paralegals’ qualifications as a marketing tool with clients. Paralegal managers in firms with structured paralegal programs will not change the hiring criteria for entry-level candidates to meet the educational requirements of AB 1761, as most of them already have educational requirements as stringent or more than the bill calls for. Many firms require a B.A. degree for paralegals; others hire candidates with a paralegal certificate and no degree, depending on their other qualifications and experience. For some time, firms with paralegal programs have made a distinction between entry-level and experienced people, using titles such as “case assistant” or “case clerk” until the person had gained enough experience to be promoted to a paralegal position. Now it will be a requirement for someone with a B.A. degree and no paralegal certificate to have one year of “law-related experience” before an attorney can certify them as qualified to be a paralegal. This may prompt smaller firms with no previous career path for paralegals to establish one. Firms will also have to sort through what is meant by “law-related experience” for purposes of hiring and promotion. Does experience as a legal secretary count? More than likely. Records clerk? Not sure. Receptionist? Probably not. What about law school? The language of the bill is very broad and vague in this regard. Firms will probably be more cautious about verifying the qualifications of entry-level paralegals whom they hire. Therese Cannon, program director of San Francisco State University’s paralegal studies program, noted that several students told her they went on job interviews and were informed they could not be hired until they received their paralegal certificate. Just months ago they might have received job offers as paralegals prior to graduation. For experienced paralegals changing jobs, many firms now require documents regarding qualifications to be presented at the time of hire. Landmark Legal Professionals is requesting documents from paralegal candidates at the time they are interviewed, and are providing a form attorney declaration to their candidates on request. Firms may also be more conservative about who bills their time out to clients as a paralegal. Lee said that Hoge Fenton will only bill out the time of employees who meet the requirements of AB 1761; other time will be absorbed as clerical or administrative overhead. Other firms bill out certain billable tasks performed by legal secretaries and other support staff, but those individuals will not be identified on clients’ bills as paralegals. Response to the MCLE component of the bill has been favorable. Although many — probably the vast majority — of paralegals seek regular continuing education voluntarily, now it will no longer be optional. Lee noted, “I know of paralegals [in the legal community] who have been practicing for 10 years and have never taken an MCLE course. This will provide them with an impetus to keep their skills up.” Many firms with structured training programs are MCLE providers and will be able to offer their paralegals the required units in-house. However, paralegals working in other settings will be required to seek MCLE opportunities on their own. Exponential Resources already had a comprehensive practice-area training for corporate paralegals and has added an ethics component so a corporate paralegal can meet all the MCLE requirements through one source. Paralegals in other practice areas can also attend Exponential Resources’ ethics class. Paralegal managers and educators agree that the biggest impact of AB 1761 will be on improving the quality of paralegal education. More schools will seek ABA approval; others with shorter training programs will lengthen their programs to qualify or will go out of business altogether. “That is a good thing,” says SFSU’s Cannon. “It’s awful for people to spend two, three, four thousand dollars on education and then still not be qualified to work as a paralegal.” Barbara Grajski is a principal with Landmark Legal Professionals, a San Francisco Bay Area provider of legal staffing and placement services.

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