WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : On the Case of Paralegals : They Provide a Lower-Cost Alternative but ‘Legal Technicians’ Are Still the Targets of Lawyers and Bar Associations
It wasn’t that long ago, perhaps a little more than a decade, that Lois Isenberg used to keep her mouth shut at parties. Not about everything, just about what she did for a living. It seemed that whenever she mentioned that she was an independent paralegal, an attorney would step forward and begin a nasty verbal assault.
“Up until the 1980s, it was always an underground movement,” Isenberg said. “We had to be quite circumspect about what we did.”
Isenberg may still be cautious, but she is no longer so circumspect. As president of the California Assn. of Independent Paralegals (CAIP), and head of a mid-Wilshire paralegal firm, Isenberg fronts a growing movement to grant independent paralegals greater authority to provide legal services. She has faced powerful opposition from local, county and state bar associations, which view her and her compatriots as engaged in the unauthorized practice of law and a threat to business, and which have prosecuted independent paralegals in the past.
To some attorneys, Isenberg and her colleagues are better suited to their traditional roles of typing or doing research under the supervision of lawyers, where the paralegals don’t run the risk of overextending their legal expertise and where they don’t pose an an economic threat to them.
Yet despite such opposition, independent paralegals--or “legal technicians,” as they are also called--are flourishing, and in the past decade have greatly expanded their portfolio and presence.
In 1985, paralegals--both independent ones and those who work for lawyers--were projected by the U.S. Department of Labor to make up the nation’s fastest-growing profession. Today, there are more than 3,000 independent paralegals statewide, in addition to the more than 10,000 traditional paralegals working in law firms. And whereas 20 years ago few Californians got divorced or declared bankruptcy without lawyers, 70% of divorces and bankruptcies in some smaller counties are now filed without attorneys.
“It made great sense to do it this way,” said Culver City financial planner Gael Kennedy, who used independent paralegals for two divorces. "(The divorces) were just a matter of, ‘How do you do the paperwork?’ ”
Kathy Love, a Rancho Cucamonga fund-raising executive who with her husband arranged an adoption, a child custody case and his divorce from a previous spouse through paralegals, agreed. “As long as you don’t try to do something complicated, you really don’t need legal representation.”
Much of the newfound prominence in the use and number of independent paralegals has been fueled by one simple factor: economics. At $150 an hour and up, most people find lawyers’ fees out of reach and overpriced for simple legal needs such as divorces, landlord-tenant disputes, guardianships and immigration matters.
When a client knows what he or she wants, Isenberg said, such matters usually can be resolved by having an independent paralegal type and file the proper documents and then letting the legal system take its course, often for about one-third the cost of a lawyer. According to Kennedy, her divorces cost one-fifth of what they would have if she used attorneys. Love’s paralegal fees for all three services totaled about $700.
“You can’t get an attorney for less than $150 an hour and with a $2,000 retainer, you can use that up overnight,” said Richard Lubetzky, a Beverly Hills attorney and a director of CalJustice, a nonprofit consumer legal reform association.
For Isenberg, the role of paralegal activist is not one she had envisioned when she entered the profession in 1973. A producer of educational films, Isenberg was asked to lend her marketing skills to a paralegal opening a divorce firm in Santa Monica. But after a week, Isenberg said, the paralegal “got up from her desk, walked to the door and said, ‘I don’t want to do this. This business is yours.’ ”
Isenberg, who was between films, grabbed at the chance to enter the emerging profession. After learning the basics of divorce form preparation from attorneys and other paralegals, she opened a business in her Los Angeles home, operating for several years on referrals. In 1980, Isenberg moved to her present offices on Wilshire Boulevard, but still kept a low profile, fearing reprisals from local and state bar associations, which have prosecuted paralegals for “UPL,” or unfair practice of law.
“I had a little ad in the Yellow Pages and that was it,” Isenberg said. “It was difficult at that time to be doing what I did.”
But with the help of sympathetic attorneys who were promoting mediation as an alternative for divorcing couples, Isenberg cautiously expanded into other types of legal assistance. Now, in addition to child support, custody and marital settlements, Isenberg’s office prepares paperwork for adoptions, paternity suits and quitclaim deeds. Two years ago, Isenberg became president of CAIP, a 6-year-old organization that has since doubled its membership to 200 paralegals and has slowly evolved into a political interest group.
As such, the organization is still undergoing growing pains. Last month, a CAIP-supported bill that would have defined the services paralegals could provide without fear of prosecution, and which would have allowed paralegals to register with the state under a two-year study period, was tabled after CAIP withdrew its support. Though the bill passed the state Senate and was headed for the governor’s desk, CAIP was angered by last-minute changes proposed by the state bar and quietly added by a legislative staffer that would have handed over the reins of the study to the state bar’s Judicial Council.
The bill, notes CAIP board member Glynda Mathewson, took four years to wend its way through the Legislature. The organization is undecided whether to introduce the bill again next term.
Isenberg acknowledges that CAIP is distinctly disadvantaged in the political arena. The organization’s main opposition--attorneys and bar associations that see paralegals in their traditional, firm-bound roles--is more powerful, better organized and more politically savvy. But with more people than ever in need of legal counsel, given the greater litigiousness in American society, and with Legal Aid backlogged with cases, Isenberg sees CAIP’s mission as more than battling lawyers’ groups.
“There are certain things I don’t do and there are certain things I do because I know people need them,” Isenberg said. “Desperately.”
It is a position that attorneys themselves find hard to disagree with. As John Carson, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., concedes: “There is a vast unmet need out there.” Yet while lawyers and representatives of bar associations say they regret that attorneys’ fees have become prohibitive, they also say that paralegals are not the answer.
“If the mission is to deliver low-cost legal help for the middle-class and poor, there are better solutions than this one,” said P. Terry Anderlini, a San Mateo attorney and a past president of the state bar. “We don’t need to set up a bureaucracy to license mini-lawyers who don’t deliver a quality product to their clients.”
Anderlini says that while independent paralegals may have knowledge in narrow fields of the law, the problems of clients can invoke a larger web of legal complicity. A simple divorce, he said, may involve other legal issues, such as trusts and estate planning, which may or may not be in the purview of paralegals.
“People don’t come into your office and have their problems in a nice, neat legal box,” said Anderlini, who proposes the introduction of low-cost legal clinics staffed by paralegals and overseen by attorneys in lieu of paralegals being given greater autonomy. “You have to be cross-trained to know and identify legal issues.”
With this, Isenberg says she has little disagreement. Paralegals, she said, are bound by law not to provide any information other than what forms to use to proceed in certain civil matters. If matters become more complicated, said Isenberg, she refers clients to a trusted cadre of lawyers, and indeed, good paralegals know when they need to step back. Isenberg herself supports the notion of having paralegals pass qualifying tests before they can begin practicing.
However, the muddy issue of what constitutes legal advice is what has entangled independent paralegals with bar associations. In fact, one state bar committee charged with examining the role and possible regulation of “legal technicians” concluded that the concept was “undefinable.” Yet the upshot, Isenberg said, is that the door is open for qualified paralegals to be prosecuted on an array of technicalities.
In one instance, she said, a paralegal was accused of giving legal advice because, among other things, she instructed a client to sign documents in black ink. In others, paralegals have been sued by bar associations for providing forms and legal self-help guides.
“We had one attorney in town who tried on a weekly basis to get the D.A. to put us in jail,” said Virginia Simons, who runs a paralegal service in Bakersfield and who was sued in federal court six years ago by a bankruptcy court trustee for the unauthorized practice of law for bankruptcy form preparation.
In Simons’ case, the judge dismissed the suit after the trustee who brought it failed to show that Simons was doing anything other than typing bankruptcy forms. Still, said Simons, she has stopped offering bankruptcy services after the passage last month of a federal bankruptcy law that would leave paralegals like herself liable for an array of infractions, including negligence for what otherwise might be viewed as simple typing errors. “I’m more visible but I’m not 100% brave,” Simons said.
To Isenberg, the real source of attorneys’ ire is the same reason clients use paralegals: the paralegals’ relatively low fees. Isenberg says lawyers fear losing business if independent paralegals are allowed to operate freely in the marketplace.
“It’s totally a turf war,” she said. “They just see it as someone taking their (business).”
That notion is disputed by Anderlini, who says that the fields paralegals work in do not usually appeal to many attorneys. “I think (a turf war) is the way independent paralegals would like to see it,” Anderlini said. “But the vast majority of practitioners I know don’t see these matters as moneymakers.”
But Don Fischbach, president of the state bar, concedes that while some of the complaints he fields from fellow attorneys regarding paralegals concern the unfair practice of law issue, other lawyers do “see it solely as a turf war.”