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Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a paralegal?

2. Is there a difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal?

3. What is the difference between certified and certificated?

4. Do I have to pass the Certified Legal Assistant exam to work as a paralegal?

5. Why should I take the CLA exam?

6. What is a California Advanced Specialists (CAS)?

7. What is California AB 1761?

8. Who regulates paralegals in California?

9. What are the typical mechanisms for regulation?

10. What are the minimum educational requirements for paralegals under California Business & Professions Code 6450?

11. What are the continuing education requirements under Business & Professions Code 6450?

12. How do I determine when I should start my continuing education under Business & Professions Code 6450?

13. May I carry over continuing education credits from one period to the next?

14. What types of continuing education courses qualify under Business & Professions Code § 6450?

15. May a paralegal work directly for the public?

16. What things can a paralegal DO?

17. What things can a paralegal NOT DO?

18. How do I get my first job?

19. What level of education are employers looking for?

20. What is an ABA approved paralegal program?

21. What is a Legal Document Assistant?

22. What does "Self-help service" mean?

23. What is the difference between a Legal Document Assistant and a Paralegal?

24. What are the fees for registering as a Legal Document Assistant?

25. What is an Unlawful Detainer Assistant?

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a paralegal?

The National Association of Legal Assistants (“NALA”) adopted the following definition

in 1986:

A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training or work experience, employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity, and performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

The American Bar Association (ABA) adopted the following definition in 1997:

Legal assistants, also known as paralegals, are a distinguishable group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. Through formal education, training and experience, legal assistants have knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law, which qualify them to do work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney.

Pursuant to California Business & Professions Code § 6450 (a):

A paralegal is a person who holds himself or herself out to be a paralegal, who is qualified by education, training, or work experience, who either contracts with or is employed by an attorney, law firm, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity, who performs substantial legal work, under the direction and supervision of an active member of the State Bar of California, as defined in Section 6060, or an attorney practicing law in the federal courts of this state, that has been specifically delegated by the attorney to the paralegal.

2. Is there a difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal?

Similar to the terms attorney and lawyer, the terms legal assistant and paralegal are used interchangeably. Under California Business & Professions Code § 6454, the terms “paralegal," “legal assistant," “attorney assistant," “freelance paralegal," “independent paralegal," and "contract paralegal" are synonymous.

According to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), National associations, bar associations, legislatures and supreme courts have addressed the definition of legal assistants and paralegals. Similarities in the identification and duties of legal assistants are emerging with routine consistency. The common threads in these definitions include:

Legal Assistants/Paralegals:

1) have received specialized training through formal education or many years of experience;

2) work under the supervision and direction of an attorney; and

3) perform non-clerical, substantive legal work in assisting an attorney

3. What is the difference between certified and certificated?

A Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal (CLA or CP) is a person who has met qualifying criteria established by the National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc. and who has successfully completed the voluntary comprehensive two-day Certified Legal Assistant Examination (CLA) offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). A Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal Specialist is a CLA or CP in good standing who has successfully completed the CLA Specialty Certifying Examination in a particular area of law. Those who have successfully completed a formal course of study through a paralegal school or program are “certificated” not “certified.” The CLA and CLA Specialist are certification marks duly registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (No. 113199 and No. 1751731 respectively). CP (Certified Paralegal) is a certification mark also filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (No. 78213275).

It is important for paralegals and their employers to understand that certification is the process by which a non-governmental agency or association grants recognition to an individual who has met certain predetermined qualifications specified by that agency or association. It is a voluntary process and not a mandatory precedent to identification with a particular career field. Examples of voluntary certification programs administered by professional associations include the Certified Public Accountant program, the Trial Specialist certification of the National Trial Advocacy Board, the Certified Life Underwriters program, Project Manager Certification, and the Certified Legal Assistant program.

4. Do I have to pass the Certified Legal Assistant exam to work as a paralegal?

The CLA exam is a voluntary professional certification. It is not a mandatory precedent to identification with a particular career field. Hiring trends and minimum qualifications differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In California, the educational requirements and qualifications of paralegals are set out in Business & Professions Code 6450, et seq.

5. Why should I take the CLA exam?

According to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), earning the CLA or CP designation provides tangible benefits. The CLA or CP, CLA Specialty, and CAS credentials are important professional designations. The CLA examination has over 1000 questions and measures the knowledge and skills of individuals at a specific time in their career. The continuing education requirements insure the continuing validity of the credentials. All CLAs or CPs must submit proof of continuing education. In 1986, the chair of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Assistants recognized the CLA designation as a "certification of higher professional achievement."

The designation has been formally recognized in many states as well, including Texas, Florida, and Louisiana. The CLA has become the national standard of professional achievement and is cited in textbooks for the paralegal profession, in guidelines for utilization of paralegals, adopted by state bar associations and supreme courts, and in cases involving recovery of paralegal fees. For more information about the Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal program, please visit NALA’s website at http://www.nala.org.

6. What is a California Advanced Specialists (CAS)?

A California Advanced Specialists (CAS) is a paralegal/legal assistant who has successfully completed the comprehensive two-day voluntary Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) examination and the four-hour California Advanced Specialty (CAS) examination offered by the Commission for Advanced California Paralegal Specialization (CACPS).

7. What is California AB 1761?

In 2000, Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer authored AB 1761, which is a public protection bill that defines paralegals and legal assistants as persons with certain educational background who work under the supervision and direction of attorneys.

AB 1761 also provides that all paralegals in California must participate in continuing legal education and provides for penalties for those who use the title paralegal without complying with the provisions of the bill. AB1761 has been codified at Business and Professions Code Section 6450 et seq.

8. Who regulates paralegals in California?

Business and Professions Code § 6450, et seq. does not establish a state agency to regulate paralegals. This law dictates the qualifications and functions of paralegals in California, but it falls short of regulation. For instance, the law does not require licensing or certification by a state agency nor does it require registration of paralegals with a state or local government entity. The law does not establish a governing body, mandate competency testing or moral character investigations, and it does not create an ethics code, disciplinary system, or reporting system for paralegals. Penalties for violation and civil liability are the only enforcement mechanisms.

However, Business and Professions Code § 6450 (d) does mandate continuing education and paralegals should maintain their continuing education certificates in their firm’s personnel file with a duplicate file in their possession. Paralegals should also make sure their credentials are in the organization’s personnel file.

9. What are the typical mechanisms for regulation?

Certification is a voluntary form of regulation. A process by which a non-governmental agency or association grants recognition to an individual who has met certain predetermined qualifications specified by that agency or association which usually involves passing an examination created by the organization or certifying agency.

Certification should not be confused with the term “Certificated.” A person who has completed a formal course of study through a paralegal school or program and received a certificate of completion or diploma is “certificated.” A person who graduates from such  a program is not certified. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers the Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal Program that is nationwide and the California Advanced Specialty Examination that is state specific. Once these examinations are passed, a paralegal is certified and can use the designations “CLA,” “CP” and “CAS.”

Licensure is a mandatory form of regulation. A process by which a governmental agency issues a license for a person who has met predetermined qualifications to engage in a given occupation and/or use a particular title or grants permission to institutions to perform specific functions. The primary purpose of licensing is to  demonstrate proficiency for entry into a profession with minimal competency defined by the legislature. Licensing is a mechanism for public consumer protection. It is mandatory and maybe revoked, suspended, or limited.

Registration is a less rigid form of regulation that involves the filing of specific identified information with a governmental body for purposes of monitoring, control, and recourse. Registration may be either voluntary or mandatory. The purpose of registration is to provide identification of members in a given profession. Certain minimum qualifications are often defined within the registration process.

10. What are the minimum educational requirements for paralegals under California Business & Professions Code 6450?

Under Business & Professions Code § 6450 (c), a paralegal shall possess at least one of the following:

(1) A certificate of completion of a paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association.

(2) A certificate of completion of a paralegal program at, or a degree from, a  postsecondary institution that requires the successful completion of a minimum of 24 semester, or equivalent, units in law-related courses and that has been accredited by a national or regional accrediting organization or approved by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education.

(3) A baccalaureate degree or an advanced degree in any subject, a minimum of one year of law-related experience under the supervision of an attorney who has been an active member of the State Bar of California for at least the preceding three years or who has practiced in the federal courts of this state for at least the preceding three years, and a written declaration from this attorney stating that the person is qualified to perform paralegal tasks.

(4) A high school diploma or general equivalency diploma, a minimum of three years of law-related experience under the supervision of an attorney who has been an active member of the State Bar of California for at least the preceding three years or who has practiced in the federal courts of this state for at least the preceding three years, and a written declaration from this attorney stating that the person is qualified to perform paralegal tasks.

11. What are the continuing education requirements under Business & Professions Code 6450?

Under Business & Professions Code § 6450 (d), California paralegals must meet the following continuing education requirements:

• Four hours of general or specialized legal education every two years; and

• Four hours of legal ethics every two years.

There is no mechanism for reporting or monitoring compliance with this requirement.

Paralegals and their supervising attorneys must certify compliance, but the paralegals are responsible for maintaining records of the certifications. The California Alliance of Paralegals (CAPA) provides a sample compliance log to track continuing education units at www.caparalegal.org

12. How do I determine when I should start my continuing education under Business & Professions Code 6450?

All paralegals practicing within the definition established in the Code on or before January 1, 2007, should begin their continuing education and continue into eternity based on that start date.

13. May I carry over continuing education credits from one period to the next?

The Code does not permit paralegals to carry over continuing education credit from one period to the next. Noncompliance is justification for civil and criminal penalties.

14. What types of continuing education courses qualify under Business & Professions Code § 6450?

The MANDATORY continuing legal education requirements provide that all continuing education courses meet the requirements of Business & Professions Code Section 6070.

Per Section 6070 only courses offered by the State Bar of California, approved MCLE providers are recognized when considering MCLE credit hours earned. If accredited by the State Bar of California, the following are permitted:

• Audio/Videotape CLE

• Online CLE

• Satellite and Teleconference CLE

• In-house Education

• University/College Courses

• Self-study education

• Out-of-State CLE activity

When considering a continuing education program, consider the educational objective.

The objective should be clearly stated in the program promotional materials and describe more than the general topic of the seminar. It should explain what you will learn and whether the presentation is intended as an introduction to the subject matter or as a more in depth discussion on specific areas of law or bodies of knowledge. If it is a specialized  legal topic, the presentation should be designed to advance the skills of a paralegal/attorney currently working in that specific field of law. Also, consider whether the program covers both theory and practical skills. Will there be supporting documentation in the form of written materials or books provided as part of the program?

Is the faculty composed of paralegals and/or attorneys from your local area? Are the faculty members experienced in the practice area?

15. May a paralegal work directly for the public?

No. Under Business & Professions Code § 6450 (a), paralegals work under the direction and supervision of active members of the State Bar of California or attorneys practicing in the federal courts of California.

16. What things can a paralegal DO?

Under Business & Professions Code § 6450 (a), tasks performed by a paralegal include, but are not limited to:

1) Case planning, development, and management;

2) Legal research

3) Interviewing clients

4) Fact gathering and retrieving formation

5) Drafting and analyzing legal documents;

6) Collecting, compiling, and utilizing technical information to make an independent decision and recommendation to the supervising attorney; and

7) Representing clients before a state or federal administrative agency if that representation is permitted by statute, court rule, or administrative rule or regulation.

17. What things can a paralegal NOT DO?

Under Business & Professions Code § 6450 (b), a paralegal shall not do the following:

1) Provide legal advice.

2) Represent a client in court.

3) Select, explain, draft, or recommend the use of any legal document to or for any person other than the attorney who directs and supervises the paralegal.

4) Act as a runner or capper, as defined in Sections 6151 and6152.

5) Engage in conduct that constitutes the unlawful practice of law.

6) Contract with, or be employed by, a natural person other than an attorney to perform paralegal services.

7) In connection with providing paralegal services, induce a person to make an investment, purchase a financial product or service, or enter a transaction from which income or profit, or both, purportedly may be derived.

8) Establish the fees to charge a client for the services the paralegal performs, which shall be established by the attorney who supervises the paralegal's work. This paragraph does not apply to fees charged by a paralegal in a contract to provide paralegal services to an attorney, law firm, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity as provided in subdivision (a).

18. How do I get my first job?

Internships during school are an excellent way to get some experience. Temporary work assignments are also a good way to get some experience and gain contacts and resources that provide long-term benefits. Many jobs are still found by word of mouth. Networking is a great way to meet the practicing paralegals in your area. These paralegals will know of immediate openings and can help guide you while looking for your first job. Do not underestimate the benefits of job fairs. At one such fair, you can hand out your resume to numerous placement agencies. You can talk to the people at the agencies about how to improve your resume and interviewing techniques, current hiring practices, and current job openings. You can also meet and talk to other people who are looking for jobs or currently practicing as paralegals.

If you do not meet the minimum experience and/or educational requirements for your geographical area, you may need to start in a non-paralegal position. Do not let this get you down. Many of us start at the bottom. Also, do not forget to tell potential employers about any prior work experience in other industries. Regardless of your past position or industry, you learned and developed many professional skills that may supplement your legal education and training and provide added benefit to your potential legal employer.

As you conduct your job search, look beyond the traditional law firm paralegal role.

Many positions in business and government involve the interpretation and application of legal principles, as well as the ability to write and perform research. This is where the job growth in the profession is occurring. While these jobs may not be listed under "paralegal" in the want ads, the job functions and responsibilities often require legal knowledge, organizational skills, and analytical and judgment skills. Today, some form of government regulator or policy affects almost every business. Survey the businesses in your area and target positions likely to benefit from your legal experience and training.

If you are looking for your first job, you may find the Riley Guide helpful at http://www.rileyguide.com/

19. What level of education are employers looking for?

Current trends across the country, as illustrated through various surveys, indicate that formal paralegal education has become a requirement to secure paralegal employment. A four-year degree is the hiring standard in many markets. Consequently, Legal Assistant Management Association (LAMA), the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), and many local paralegal organizations recommend that future practitioners have a four-year degree to enter the profession. For more information about educational standards for paralegals, please go to the AAfPE website at http://www.aafpe.org/.

20. What is an ABA approved paralegal program?

The American Bar Association has a program of approving legal assistant training programs, which meet their guidelines. Seeking ABA approval is voluntary on the part of the institution. Some quality programs have chosen not to seek approval. However, the ABA guidelines are useful in evaluating a program. For further information about the ABA guidelines, contact the American Bar Association, Standing Committee on Legal Assistants (SCOLA), 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60611 or visit SCOLA’s website at http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/legalassistants/home.html

The website of the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) also provides helpful information, including a roster of member institutions and a Statement of Academic Quality adopted by the AAfPE membership in October of 1997. AAfPE website is at http://www.aafpe.org/.

Some employers will hire only graduates from an ABA approved paralegal program. A Directory of Colleges offering Paralegal programs approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) is located at http://www.paralegalcolleges.com.

21. What is a Legal Document Assistant?

Legal Document Assistants are regulated by California Business & Professions Code § 6400, et seq. Under § 6400(c), a legal document assistant is any person who is not exempt under Section 6401 and who provides, or assists in providing, or offers to provide, or offers to assist in providing, for compensation, any self-help service to a member of the public who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter, or who holds himself or herself out as someone who offers that service or has that authority. The code section does not apply to an individual whose assistance consists merely of secretarial or receptionist services.

22. What does "Self-help service" mean?

Under Business & Professions Code § 6400 (d), "Self-help service" means all of the following:

(1) Completing legal documents in a ministerial manner, selected by a person who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter, by typing or otherwise completing the documents at the person's specific direction.

(2) Providing general published factual information that has been written or approved by an attorney, pertaining to legal procedures, rights, or obligations to a person who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter, to assist the person in representing himself or herself. This service in and of itself, shall not require registration as a legal document assistant.

(3) Making published legal documents available to a person who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter.

(4) Filing and serving legal forms and documents at the specific direction of a person who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter.

23. What is the difference between a Legal Document Assistant and a Paralegal?

A Legal Document Assistant is not the same as a Paralegal. Pursuant to Business & Professions Code §6401(b), a paralegal does not have to register as a Legal Document Assistant (LDA) while acting on behalf of a member of the State Bar. In California, a Paralegal must meet minimum education requirements and maintain continuing education units while a Legal Document Assistant is not subject to such requirements. Under Business & Professions Code § 6450 (e), a paralegal does not include a nonlawyer who provides legal services directly to members of the public, or a legal document assistant, or unlawful detainer assistant as defined in Section 6400.

Business & Professions Code § 6450 (f) requires legal document assistants to remove the word "paralegal" from their business name the next time they renew their LDA registration. This provision expires on January 1, 2004. Under 6450, it is unlawful for persons not qualified under the statute to identify themselves as paralegals in ads, or on cards, letterhead, signs and the like. Business cards must have the name of the employing law firm or a statement that the paralegal is employed or retained by a lawyer. If either of these provisions is violated, the person may be charged with an infraction punishable by fines up to $2500 as to each consumer for the first offense. Second and subsequent violations can bring misdemeanor charges with fines and/or county jail up to one year.

The code also provides for restitution to the victim.

No person who has been disbarred or suspended from the practice of law pursuant to Article 6 (commencing with §6100) of Chapter 4 of the Business and Professions Code shall, during the period of any disbarment or suspension, register as a Legal Document Assistant (see §6402).

24. What are the fees for registering as a Legal Document Assistant?

Under Business & Professions Code § 6404, the fees for registering are $175.00 in each county of registration. In addition, under § 6405, a bond of twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) shall accompany an application for a certificate of registration executed by a corporate surety qualified to do business in this state and conditioned upon compliance with this chapter. The total aggregate liability on the bond shall be limited to twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000).

25. What is an Unlawful Detainer Assistant?

Under section Business & Professions Code § 6400 (a), an Unlawful Detainer Assistant is any individual who for compensation renders assistance or advice in the prosecution or defense of an unlawful detainer claim or action, including any bankruptcy petition that may affect the unlawful detainer claim or action.

"Unlawful detainer claim" means a proceeding, filing, or action affecting rights or liabilities of any person that arises under Chapter 4 (commencing with Section 1159) of Title 3 of Part 3 of the Code of Civil Procedure and that contemplates an adjudication by a court.

 

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