IAALS Expresses Support of California’s Proposed Paraprofessional Program in Comments to State Bar

January 25, 2022

"Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco"In September, the California Paraprofessional Working Group published its report and recommendations concerning a paraprofessional licensing program. The idea for such a program originated in a 2019 report that detailed the significant gap between the need for and availability of civil legal services in California; since publication, the state bar has made a variety of efforts aimed at reducing the justice gap, including “[exploring] options to increase access to paraprofessionals, limited license legal technicians, and other paraprofessionals.”

After more than 140 meetings, the working group released its recommendations in September. They include:

  • Approving practice areas that address areas of highest unmet civil legal needs, including consumer debt; employment; and family, children, and custody; 
  • Determining licensing requirements that balance public protection and encouraging entrants into this new career pathway; 
  • Adhering to regulatory requirements and discipline; and 
  • Implementing a phased program rollout and conducting consumer outreach. 

In addition to providing legal advice, conducting other tasks typically handled by attorneys, and representing parties in court in certain instances (excluding jury trials), paraprofessionals would be able to have minority ownership interests in law firms.

IAALS submitted a comment in support of the proposals, discussing how, under the working group’s proposed plan, paraprofessionals would be thoroughly qualified for the job by completing the rigorous (but not deterring) requirements for licensure. In addition, our experts at IAALS refute the assertion that paraprofessionals would provide second-rate services that could ultimately pose a greater risk to consumers. 

“While many lawyers who oppose paraprofessional programs imagine all the harm that could come with new legal services providers, they somehow cannot fathom the idea that regulators could set ethical and competency standards and regulations to minimize risk (just as we do with lawyers),” write IAALS Manager Michael Houlberg, Director of Special Projects Natalie Knowlton, and Director of Legal Education and the Profession Zack DeMeola in the comment. They cite data from the Law Society of Ontario that shows the same percentage of independent paralegals (of which there are around 10,000) and lawyers are the subject of a complaint in any given year. Additionally, research from sociologist and MacArthur Genius Rebecca Sandefur indicates that within disciplinary systems for programs where nonlawyers can represent clients, both the quality of outcomes and numbers of complaints are as good as or better than with lawyers.

“The variety of service areas and allowance of in-court representation will provide a great benefit to many who cannot afford full-service lawyers,” IAALS argues. “Consumer debt, housing, and family law have some of the highest percentages of self-representation and the outcomes of these cases can negatively affect people for the rest of their lives. With the creation of these paraprofessionals, litigants will have more options than ever to find someone who can help them navigate their case—all the way to the courtroom—for a price they can afford.” 

In a separate comment, Janet Drobinske, senior legal assistant at IAALS and paralegal, urges that in the face of such a chronic and severe crisis, the legal system should embrace an all-hands-on-deck approach: “We need lifeboats from every corner: pro bono attorneys, limited scope representation, legal aid centers, self-help facilities, law librarians, online dispute resolution, simplified and automated forms, and, yes, educated and experienced paraprofessionals.”

“Law firms have been leveraging experienced and educated in-house paralegals for many decades and likely view them as capable collaborators, not competitors,” Drobinske states. “That healthy alliance does not need to change.” An in-house paraprofessional, she writes, could be on the front lines—meeting with clients, conducting triage and spotting legal issues, and ultimately assessing the extent of legal help a client actually needs. “In fact, the recommendations represent an approbation of what is already in practice in law firms all over California: the question isn’t so much whether paralegals or paraprofessionals can do this work; the question is whether to formalize the fact they are already performing it.”

“If asked, nearly everyone who works in the legal field would likely say they entered it to help people. It is a service industry that needs to expand its reach and perhaps rebrand at the same time. The profession is revered by many but is also the subject of much consternation, not to mention derision. Redemption of the legal field is possible and may be found in opening avenues to its foundational purpose and its highest calling: helping people with their legal needs.” 

The California Paraprofessional Working Group will now review public comments, make final adjustments, and submit the program for board approval. IAALS hopes the board will take into account the comprehensive requirements and high ethical and competency standards paraprofessionals would have to meet; the number of Californians that currently have no access to legal services but need it; and the potential for many individuals who, for numerous reasons, don’t want to pursue a JD but still possess the desire and intellect to help people with their legal needs.